3 September 2002
The last of the line

Okay, $71,500 seems like a stiff price, but it's the last Chevrolet Camaro to be sold. (It's the second-to-last Camaro off the assembly line; the actual last vehicle is bound for a museum.) General Motors pulled the plug on the Camaro and its sister ship, the Pontiac Firebird, after more than three decades, citing plummeting sales and high costs no other GM car is built on this platform.

At least it's a Z28. With T-tops, of course. And Chevy is donating the proceeds to charity. On to Woodward Avenue, and let those eight cylinders be heard!

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:47 PM)
4 September 2002
It's a gas, gas, gas

Car and Driver editor Csaba Csere, in the October '02 issue, dissecting California Assembly Bill 1493, which orders reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases in the Golden State starting in 2006:

"As large as California is, however, it produces only 6.5 percent of America's man-made CO2 emissions, and the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of the world total. Moreover, California's privately owned vehicles account for 40 percent of the state's CO2 output. Multiply the percentages, and you get a global man-made CO2 reduction of well under one percent, even if private driving in California were completely banned."

Yeah, that ought to make a dent in global warming.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:52 PM)
5 September 2002
Wide open

There are none so blind as those who slide down the Interstate at 80 mph, unable to see anything beyond the frontage road. An example:

"I'm not sure where Dylan's Desolation Row is, but I-35 between Des Moines and the outer suburbs of Kansas City is pretty desolate in its own right; it's like all the farmers were given Federal subsidies to get as far away from it as possible."

From my very own World Tour log, this past summer. Obviously the rantings of a madman, and a tired madman at that.

And there was a gentle nudge today from Regions of Mind, reminding me as many of us perhaps need reminding once in a while that the rim of the world is neither desolate nor deserted.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:02 AM)
21 September 2002
Thoroughly Stude

Of course, I wasn't actually going to the mall, but there are some worthwhile shops around the periphery, and while I was getting back onto the service road, I took a sideways glance at the adjacent lot, and to my surprise, there were, not one, but two middle-Fifties Studebakers. This, I decided, called for further exploration.

And sure enough, once I'd turned the corner, I found dozens of Studes on exhibition: bullet-nose sedans from '50 and '51, classic coupes from '53 on, ferocious late-50s and early 60s Hawks, a couple of the legendary Avantis ('63-'64), a smattering of pickup trucks (this is Oklahoma, after all), a vintage-'48 school bus, and, perhaps the biggest surprise of all, a '66 Commander.

I had never before seen any '66 Studebakers. After the 1964 model year proved to be one bust too many, Studebaker shut down its production facilities in South Bend, Indiana; all subsequent Studes would be built in Hamilton, Ontario. A mere two years and not quite 30,000 cars later, it was all over. This particular '66 was a nice enough medium-sized sedan with a small-block Chevrolet V8. (Studebaker's own engine-production line had died with the South Bend plant.) It seems to me that it should have been at least reasonably competitive with Detroit products of that era; certainly it was more stylish than the '66 Chevy II Nova that I used to drive. But all the '66 Studebakers combined totaled fewer than 9,000 cars. Probably that many Chevys fell off the transporter en route to the dealerships.

Fall days around here are perfect for outdoor auto shows, and I couldn't have asked for a nicer one. I didn't even carp at the presence of a semi-imposing '54 Packard Clipper sedan; this was the year, after all, that Studebaker and Packard had merged. And, needless to say, the owners were happy to bend any and all ears with Stude lore, with the notable exception of one guy who went to sleep in the trunk of his (I assume it was his) Gran Turismo Hawk.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:03 PM)
24 September 2002
And keep your arm off the armrest

Actual text from the owner's manual, right out of the glove compartment (which, by the way, contains no gloves):

"Stacking luggage or other cargo higher than the seatbacks or putting things on the rear package tray is dangerous. During sudden braking or a collision, it can become a projectile that may hit and injure passengers. Don't stack things higher than the seatbacks or put things on the rear package tray."

I don't know about the rest of you, but it seems to me that if they didn't want people to put, um, packages on it, by damn, they should have called it something other than the package tray.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:52 AM)
26 September 2002
One in every crowd

What happens "when 75 automobiles converge simultaneously from 4 or 5 directions and attempt to form a single file line"?

According to Marc Lundberg, nothing much this time until that first, fateful move by the Guy in the Red Car.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:21 PM)
28 September 2002
Road styles of the rich and famous

Like most big-but-not-huge American cities, Indianapolis has a beltway of sorts, a highway built to Interstate standards (such as they are) which loops around the periphery and connects to other major highways. This is Interstate 465, and if David Letterman has his way, it will be renamed for him.

To me, this seems to open a world of possibilities. Interstate 5 from Los Angeles north to the Canadian border could be renamed for Alec Baldwin, who presumably would use it to emigrate. Duval Street in Austin, Texas, its curbs lined with yuppiemobiles and its surface pockmarked by pavement irregularities both accidental and deliberate, making driving on it unsafe at any speed, could become Ralph Nader Avenue. And I'm sure Massachusetts can find a bridge to name after Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:38 PM)
29 September 2002
Don't drive, he said

Mostly reasonable points regarding auto insurance, from Colby Cosh:

"I've heard arguments from time to time, even from people otherwise well-disposed to the free market, in favour of 'no-fault' auto insurance systems like those existing on either side of Alberta (in B.C. and Saskatchewan). As a worse-than-average driver, however, I am convinced that market pricing of auto insurance is a good thing. At my most haphazard, my insurance rates were over $3,800 (Canadian) a year. This was more than I was paying in rent at the time, but it was more or less fair just as it's more or less fair now that, as an older and wiser man with a clean recent abstract, I should pay closer to $800/yr. There's no right to insurance at any particular price. However strongly we may all wish to drive, there are some people who just shouldn't be on the road, and we cannot, in principle, do a better job of identifying them and discouraging them than by means of a competitive actuarial market."

This is absolutely true, but at least on this side of the 49th I admit to being unaware of how the Canadians may handle this states with mandatory-insurance laws also have assigned-risk pools, so that people to whom no rational company would sell insurance can pay a stiff premium and stay on the road, when what is really needed is to keep them as far away from the roads as possible.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:19 PM)
7 October 2002

General Motors hasn't had any problem moving Chevy trucks lately, and I'm inclined to believe it's because they knew how to sell them. A pickup, even if it's driven by your Aunt Hilda, is still a big ol' bruiser, and advertising for trucks reflects the long-standing American desire for Industrial Strength stuff at home. (Sister GMC's "We Are Professional Grade" nattering is slightly sniffier, but ultimately just as elemental.)

What the General wasn't doing all that well was selling Chevy cars, sales of which have been sinking, well, like a rock. Really, what's the last Chevrolet ad campaign you remember? If you, like me, have to go all the way back to Dinah Shore, the problem becomes obvious: Chevy is simply off most buyers' radar.

Until, perhaps, now. This year the bow-tie boys took a tiny step away from the blandness of "We'll Be There"; Campbell-Ewald, Chevy's ad agency, figured out that scores of popular songs over the years had mentioned Chevrolet and its cars, and decided to run with the idea. The first installment was a shot of a little red Corvette, complete with the appropriate lyric fragment courtesy of The Artist Usually Known As Prince. A verse from AC/DC's "That's The Way I Wanna Rock And Roll" accompanies a new Monte Carlo coupe; a '63 Impala evokes the Beach Boys' "409".

The big question, of course: will these rockin' ads strike a chord with buyers? I think they will; even if you're not considering a Chevy, you'll certainly think about Chevy. And two years ago, the precursor of this campaign, a billboard in Chevrolet's home town of Warren, Michigan, placed just in time for the Woodward Dream Cruise, said succinctly: "They don't write songs about Volvos."

Now to see if Ford fires back with some Mustang sallies.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:48 PM)
12 October 2002
A long Saturday drive

It wasn't my drive Weetabix did this one but, with the exception of minor geographical discrepancies, I could have:

Here, everything is very modest. The environment threatens to overtake everything if you're not careful. It will consume you, in one way or the other. There are probably more animals than people. The landscape is incredible, barren and dispersed but also somehow lush and giving. This is what molds us. This is what gives us our stereotypical Midwestern friendliness. This is what sets us apart, good or bad. Something in the land, in the way that the silos stand sentry over us, season by season. Something in the way that squat little barns, the womb of any farm, huddle apologetically amidst the farmhouses and cows. And cows. And cows and cows and cows. Something in the way a dog will run, tail wagging, up a long driveway to see if you belong to him. Something in the way that sumac, the most plebian of weeds, becomes a roadside ditch peacock and reminds us that things that are beautiful are sometimes poison too. Something in the way we settle in, like it or not, until we've worn a groove into the earth. And we belong. We belong to this strange often-ridiculed land, the butt of jokes we don't even understand, far more than it belongs to us. It's the soil in which our family trees grow. It's beneath our fingernails.

That's Weet's Wisconsin. The Oklahoma I know is very much like that. The red clay sticks to your shoes, to your wheels, to your very soul. There are things in the land of Central Time that I suspect simply cannot be understood on the coasts.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:34 PM)
Greatest Hits, volume I

Originally posted 18 March 2001

I'm getting ready to back out of the parking lot at the BBQ place on the edge of town, a sack half-full of cholesterol-ridden delights at my side, when a three-quarter-ton pickup truck rolls into the lot, and pulls up just far enough to avoid blocking my exit. The truck is pulling a trailer, and on board is a vintage (say, 1960 or so) farm tractor, cleaned up if not exactly concours condition, apparently on its way to a new home. Within seconds, a crowd had gathered to see the old relic, and here and there I picked up snatches of conversations along the following lines:

"We used to have one of these back around '64, and we just drove it and drove it until it finally died." "You know, with a rig this big, you really need that shorter axle ratio, just to be able to get away from a stoplight." "I hear they're changing the laws on trailer licenses again."

And it occurred to me as I sped away, if "sped" is the word that applies to a four-cylinder sedan heading up a twelve-percent grade, that there was no way in hell the government and the Greens were going to talk these people into Honda Insights and such. Two-dollar gas, three-dollar gas, five-dollar gas we'd no more give up our trucks than our guns.

And yes, before you ask, there is a National Motorists Association.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:30 PM)
17 October 2002
Greatest Hits, volume VI

Originally posted 23 March 2002

Scene: Late Seventies. We're tooling down a very straight, very dull road in rural Oklahoma. Conversation has ground to a halt. What to do? Turn up the radio? No, she hates it loud. Peer down her blouse? Seat angle and fabric arrangement make this difficult, not to mention fairly unsafe. (The same, only more so, for "look up her skirt".) Finally, I glance at this Japanese simulation of a British dashboard and remark, "Why in the hell does the speedo go up to 125 miles per hour? This thing wouldn't do one-twenty-five if you pushed it off the frigging Sears Tower."

She glares after all, she was the one who picked it out and says, "And how do you know it wouldn't?"

I pull the stick back into fourth and push the pedal through the floorboard, and we're off: seventy-five, eighty, ninety. Back into fifth, and eventually the needle settles halfway between 100 and 105. The tach flutters just on the far side of 5000 rpm. It is about this point that it occurs to us that the road is becoming both less straight and less rural, and that we're risking a fine of about a week's pay, and I rein in our trusty steed, half grinning, half gasping for breath, mostly the same expression I tend to exhibit after sex, except that I'm not sleepy.

Around noon today, I was on that same road, with the music up loud and the passenger seat occupied by no one, and I wasn't doing anything like 102.5 mph; indeed, there were extended periods of 0 mph while the construction crews repositioned themselves. And it's a good thing that they were there, since this is one of those roads that was apparently originally paved with reclaimed emery boards and then striped randomly with "I Can't Believe It's Not Tar". Forget old memories and such: I was definitely happy to get out of that neck of the woods. The construction zone ended after about ten miles, and a few minutes later I found myself between two Chevy Suburbans, the first of which was making a move to pass up a cement truck doing a modest 58. For some reason, I decided I didn't want the second 'Burb riding me all the way to the city, so I followed the first guy into the left lane. It was only after I'd dropped back into position that I noticed the speedo needle: 94 mph. There must be something about that road.

And one more thing: Why the hell does the speedo go up to 150 miles per hour? This thing wouldn't do one-fifty if you pushed it off the frigging Sears Tower.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:20 AM)
2 November 2002
Greatest Hits, volume VIII

Originally posted 7 June 2002

Automotive magazines are routinely pilloried these days for such grave breaches of the peace as feature articles on sport-utility vehicles ("Isn't this supposed to be a car magazine?"), payola from advertisers ("The PDQ-10 was two-tenths of a second slower in the quarter but you ranked it first, no doubt in exchange for that two-page spread right after the letters column, didn't you?"), and, perhaps most heinous of all, testing vehicles that mere mortals couldn't possibly afford. The July issue of Automobile exemplifies this latter offense with a cover story featuring five cars of varying degrees of superness (the least-expensive being a Mercedes-Benz), averaging around 489 hp, being driven in Italy fergoshsakes. How are Carl and Lenny in Springfield supposed to relate to that?

The answer, I would argue, is that they're supposed to be motivated to drive, even if it's some disreputable middle-80s rustbucket with no more sporting credentials than Ralph Nader. One of the advantages of living here in the Big PX is that we still have a fair amount of wide-open space that (sometimes) can be traversed at wide-open throttle, and despite the best efforts of twee types who think we should be happy to ride the bus with all the other [fill in vague ethnic or socioeconomic pejorative], Americans, by and large, keep the pedal to the metal. And it actually may be, in some ways, more fun with less car; my innocuous little sedan with its modest 130 hp obviously won't flatten corners of the autostrada at triple-digit speeds, but I can run all day at six or seven-tenths without incurring the wrath of The Man. Provided I don't do anything stupid while running, that is. And many moons ago, I got enough seat time in a Maserati Quattroporte (you gotta love a language that has a word as luscious as that to mean something as mundane as "four-door") to learn a healthy measure of respect for a machine that pays you back for not paying attention by putting you into a ditch. Or worse.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:13 AM)
10 November 2002
Check it and see

I'm not particularly hot-blooded, but I am running a fever of a hundred and three, and it's severely affecting my ability to come up with Neat Stuff for this section.

Fortunately, the December Car and Driver is here, and as always, it's packed full of quotable goodies.

Patrick Bedard, on the Washington-area red-light cameras:

The argument for them starts out with one foot on a banana peel and the other on a fast freight. On the one foot, it maintains, speeding and red-light infractions are so serious they need 24/7 enforcement with an unblinking eye. On the other, they're so insignificant that we needn't bother with the usual constitutional niceties such as right to a trial and innocent until proven guilty and the right to be confronted by your accuser.

Just send in your check, and don't bother us with your sniveling "yes, buts."

If reducing violations were really the point, then D.C. would follow the example of nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, which chopped red-light running to less than 1/10th its former rate at the corner of U.S. 50 and Fair Ridge Drive. The miracle was accomplished by lengthening the yellow to 5.5 seconds from 4.0. No civil rights were trampled in the process.

But there was a casualty. With citations dropping to less than one a day, the ticket machine is a total wreck.

John Phillips, reviewing the don't-call-it-a-BRAT Subaru Baja:

Our test car sported the optional Hella roof-top spotlights ($395) that resemble Lucifer's horns. Using these lights while the car is in motion is illegal approximately everywhere, such that someone's crack legal team ordered them wired to illuminate only when the hand brake is engaged. The lights do flip flat, though, so you can shine them through the sunroof and directly down your girlfriend's blouse. Plus, they remain blazing even when the engine's off, affording you an excellent opportunity to sample the entire line of Sears Die-Hards.

It does strike us, however, that cuteness a property the Baja flaunts like Larry King wears shoulder pads is a trait that robust American males do not expect to find in their trucks. A cute truck is like a jockstrap with floral embroidery. A cute truck is like a riding mower with a spice rack. Like cuddling after sex. Possibly you get the idea.

Twenty-four years I've read this magazine, and I could do another twenty-four if I live that long. If this fever doesn't break, though, I won't.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:36 PM)
13 November 2002
Satanic Utility Vehicles

The Evangelical Environmental Network and Creation Care magazine are asking one and all to ask themselves: What Would Jesus Drive?

"Economic issues," says Rev. Jim Ball of EEN, "are moral issues," and their upcoming ad campaign will exhort the faithful to consider the effect on God's gardens before rendering unto Chevrolet the forty grand for a Suburban.

There is, of course, Biblical precedent for this. In Acts 2, the car pool was invented: the disciples apparently managed to get to the first Pentecost in one Accord.

(Muchas gracias: Bob Whaley at Cruel Shoes.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:15 PM)
23 November 2002
Yugo your way

In 1985, Malcolm Bricklin decided that what the US market needed was a really cheap car, and the next year he began selling a couple of Fiat 128-based cars built by Zastava Motor Works in the Serbian sector of Yugoslavia. The Yugos sold well at first; in fact, they sold so well that the Serbs squeezed Bricklin out and took over US distribution themselves, which proved to be a serious mistake.

The bigger mistake, though, was selling a car based on the Fiat 128, a model so ancient even Fiat gave up on it after 1978. And the usual Fix-It-Again-Tony woes that dogged the 128 were just as evident in the Yugos. Production ended in the early 90s, at least partially because the Zastava plant was damaged in the Balkan war.

It is now 2002, and Malcolm Bricklin has decided that what the US market needs is a really cheap car. Next year he plans to sell a line of four vehicles not even slightly based on Fiats, built by Zastava Motor Works, using engines from Peugeot. No attempt will be made to claim any connection with the ill-fated Yugos of yore; Zastava's cars will bear its own badge.


Well, okay, no one will likely confuse any of these with those driving machines closer to the ultimate. The real question is whether American consumers, who generally prefer to buy loaded luxoboats, will consider something priced below even South Korean levels. If Bricklin can find 60,000 buyers a year, he'll make a fortune. If he can't well, as Peter Noone once said, "Second verse, same as the first."

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:02 AM)
25 November 2002
Wired, or tethered?

The quest for Newer and Cooler Stuff isn't doing us a whole lot of good, says Trinity:

MaryJane, my 1974 Volkswagen Beetle, is still running, still beautiful, still anti-air conditioning, anti-power locks, anti-power windows, anti-anti-lock brakes, totally air-cooled, sputtering piece of good German machinery. I don't need an airbag. I don't need a rollover bar. I don't need cup holders, or a fancy extra outlet for my non-existent cell phone that doesn't keep me connected to the digital world. Technology is supposed to "free" us from our daily struggles, make our lives more convenient. Well, I don't think so. I think technology is just putting more chains and shackles on our limbs. What do I need a cell phone for? There are payphones everywhere. I don't need to fork out $35.00 a month for a nifty little phone that has games and a cute little 'N Sync-specialized ring and a corny message for my voice mail. I don't need a pager. Who is going to page me? God? Am I the President of Iraq? Do I NEED to be paged?

[Mental note: This is not the place to mention my nifty little phone that plays "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction". Even at under $20.]

"Anti-anti-lock brakes". I like that. There's something vaguely disquieting about turning a major driving function over to a bunch of microchips; I still get slightly queasy at the thought of cruise control, fercrissake.

I'm not giving up my cupholders, though.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:47 PM)
30 November 2002
Road noise

And the prodigal returns.

I realize that nothing, not even US highways, are forever consider the bloody dismemberment of Route 66 in favor of a fistful of Interstates but how many signs can you slap on one road? There's a stretch of I-35 through southern Johnson County, Kansas that's also signed US 50, US 56 and US 169. And they wonder why they needed those extra lanes.

They call it the Bedlam Series, the annual meetings between the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, and no matter what the sport for all I know, they might compete in intercollegiate saxophone-polishing the turnout is high. How high? I was southbound on I-35 at Oklahoma 51, the major route to Stillwater, and northbound traffic trying to exit onto 51 was backed up approximately 10.3 miles (figure 12:46 for "Black Cow", skipping "Aja", then "Deacon Blues", divided by 74 mph).

Speaking of 74 mph, turnpike service areas are your friend. Yes, they charge a few cents extra per gallon. On the other hand, when states like Kansas which are now putting entry time to the exact second on toll tickets figure out that they can compute your average speed when you turn in that ticket, a few minutes' layover at Phillips 66 may be just the thing that keeps your average speed below the speed limit. Of course, you can crawl along at 62 mph, but this irritates everyone else.

So much for tales of the turnpike. Regular bloggage resumes whenever.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:36 PM)
8 December 2002
Worst. Wheels. Ever.

Mark, the self-proclaimed Heavy Metal Redneck, takes issue with that Forbes.com poll to determine the Crappiest American Cars:

I'm horrified to find the "Chevrolet Caprice" and "Dud" on the same page. Holy cow, people. Put the crack down, and back away slowly. The Caprice was one of the most comfortable, most durable, and most widely used by the police from 1977 until the end of their production in 1996. Any clapped out and rusting Caprice stands a very good chance of scattering YOUR brand new shiny car all over the highway. Some of them also stand a good chance of outrunning YOUR brand new shiny 4 banger. Which is why they were used for police cars.

Anything that can't outrun my four-banger (zero to sixty in 11.2 on a good day) is in need of repair, is being driven by a narcoleptic, or is a Segway.

AMC was a company that didn't make it. Why didn't they make it? Because they didn't make cars that blended in. See a Pacer, anywhere, and you will remember seeing it. Remember the last time you saw a Camry? Huh?

The problem is, I can remember the last time I saw a Camry. In fact, just about every damn time I pull into a parking lot, I see a Camry.

The sheep buy cars that are power everything and loaded with features...and never stop to think what to do if the car doesn't work like it's supposed to. They buy front wheel drive cars, because they think they're better on the snow. That is, until it snows, and then they and their FWD jap jobs are stuck, while the driver of the 1976 Caprice 2 door (400 V8, 300 horsepower, lots of legroom, had many women in the back seat can't do that with a Galant) is having no trouble at all.

Uh, Mark, does your mom know you've had women in the back seat? (And why the hell didn't I ever do this?)

Actually, my FWD "jap job" (made in Flat Rock, Michigan) does pretty well in the snow; I haven't had a serious slide in the slush in years.

All too soon, the Crown Victoria will be phased out... then the Mustang will become a front wheel drive Acura wannabe. The De-Balling of America will be complete. No wonder Saddam Hussien is still alive.

If you're not doing anything this weekend, why don't you run him over with a Caprice? You'd be doing us all a favor, and Chevrolet could use the publicity. I won't even make any jokes about Iraq-and-pinion steering.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:45 PM)
11 December 2002
Those Kentucky back roads

During the World Tour, I caught my breath long enough to say something about driving in rural Kentucky, and it seemed to go over fairly well, so I'm happy to pass on a second opinion.

The following paragraph comes from Jean Jennings, editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, and she's describing a late-October (I think) slide through the countryside.

It was election time in Kentucky, and all of our turns were marked by clumps of campaign posters for people with names like Peanuts, Lacey, Doc, Dot, Butch, and Buford. There was a Bobby Lee, a Ricky Lee, a Proctor, a Thurston, and a Catfish. You got the idea that a guy named Jim or Bob might not have much of a chance at the polls, but a guy named Jim Bob could rule the world. The sumac was on fire, and tobacco hung browning in big, weathered barns. It was 59 degrees, and we had a blast, splitting into two groups and gathering at the day's end to tell tales and compare favorite road sections.

Of course, this was before they rolled the Ford SVT Focus, but that was in Tennessee.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:32 PM)
14 January 2003
Premium prices

Auto insurers always have an explanation for why your rates are incredibly high. In this part of the world, it's theft: cars are stolen here at a brisk clip, some destined for chop shops, others for faraway buyers who ask no questions. In California, it's the high cost of doing business in general. In New Jersey well, it's New Jersey.

And in Floyd County, Virginia, it's deer. Fred will explain.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:39 PM)
21 January 2003
Laggards and blackguards

They're called "left-lane bandits," and you've certainly seen them, sitting in what's supposed to be the fast, or at least the passing, lane, traveling at a speed which they think to be conspiciously law-abiding. While these characters probably deserve whatever they get, it's probably not advisable for you to administer same, says Moira Breen:

Yes, slow drivers are annoying. They may have a reason for driving slowly. Or they may just be being pissants. But even if the latter is true, tailgating will not make them accelerate. And the driver's pissantry does not abrogate the laws of physics governing stopping distances.

Better, perhaps, to let the lessons be taught by Kenworth and Peterbilt. That massive grille looming seemingly right behind one's back seat has a way of motivating even the most militant member of the Anti-Destination League.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:56 AM)
25 January 2003
Uncontrollable emissions

Keith Bradsher, the New York Times hack who spewed out that anti-SUV book last year, is apparently going wider with his campaign: his publisher has kicked in a few bucks' worth of underwriting to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of Car Talk, the popular NPR radio show. (I caught the first sponsorship announcement on show #304, this weekend.) By no coincidence, the brothers had been conducting a campaign they call Live Large, Drive Small, which needs (and, frankly, deserves) no explanation.

Much is made of the fact that SUVs, being taller, have a higher center of gravity, and therefore are more likely to roll over than real cars. Now real drivers "On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers," explains Volkswagen are aware of this and conduct themselves accordingly behind the wheel. Your basic leftist, on the other hand, resents the very idea that different people have different skill levels, and seeks to replace it with criteria of a more political nature. Out here in the Real World, we tend to think that if some idiot goes too fast around a curve and rolls his expensive new toy, well, the word "idiot" is pretty much self-explanatory. Proponents of the Nanny State, however, demand that we be solicitous of idiots, and in fact encourage them to employ solicitors when idiocy produces undesired results.

As usual, most of the proffered "solutions" do nothing for the problems they imagine. Changing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards will have exactly zero effect on the vehicles already on the road. If they seriously wanted people to get into smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles, they would push for a substantial (at least $1.00 per gallon) increase in the gas tax. But they won't do that, because it would affect everyone with a gas tank, including themselves; what they really want to do, of course, is to punish Those Other People.

In the long run, what does all this mean? Backlash, baby, backlash. When all is said and done, Keith Bradsher may wind up selling more sport-utility vehicles than Cal Worthington ever imagined.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:43 PM)
1 February 2003
A Mini driver wannabe

Brock Yates, inventor of the Cannonball Run, owns one. My daughter isn't quite the leadfoot that the Assassin is, but she wants one too. And me?


Of such notions are Vents built.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:41 AM)
17 February 2003
The return of Studebaker

Well, sort of. Avanti Motors, which in various incarnations has been building the sequel to Studebaker's fabled Avanti sport coupe, has decided to resurrect the Stude marque for an Xtreme Utility Vehicle.

A preproduction XUV was unwrapped at the Chicago Auto Show last week; it's built on a Ford F-250 SuperDuty truck chassis, but it more closely resembles the Hummer H2. Too closely, says General Motors, which has filed suit, charging Avanti with trademark infringement. DaimlerChrysler, which isn't particularly fond of the H2's Jeep-imitation seven-slot grille, hasn't said a word yet.

No reports of any bullet-nose sedans in the works.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:18 AM)
19 February 2003
Dreams on wheels

Back in 1999, Peter Michael DeLorenzo ran into a severe case of mixed emotions. He loved the auto industry, its passion for power and its delight in design. Simultaneously, he hated the auto industry for its failure to exercise any of that power to bring good designs to the showroom where you and I could get at them.

The way out of this dilemma was called Autoextremist.com. From his perch in a Detroit suburb, DeLorenzo issued Rant after blistering Rant about the industry's myriad failings and what could be done about them. Nobody admitted to reading DeLorenzo, but damned near everybody did.

And now that the industry is paying attention and reshaping itself into the sort of lean, mean driving machine the times demand, DaimlerChrysler asked itself "Why can't we get this guy working for us?" Turns out they could; DeLorenzo announced today he is taking a sabbatical from the site to shake up things in Dodgetown. (Now there's a reversal of form: giving up a Web site to take a day job.) There's more to Autoextremist.com than just Peter Michael DeLorenzo, and it will continue in his absence, but still, this is the sort of career move that a blogger could envy.

Now when is ABC going to replace Jimmy Kimmel with Scott Ott?

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:49 AM)
2 March 2003
You meet the nicest people on a Chonda

Two words: Jewish bikers.

You gotta love it.

(Muchas gracias: Max Power.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:05 PM)
Possible signs of spring

I've learned to be suspicious of these, but in view of last week, I need all the warmth I can get.

There was actual sunshine today after about 3 pm or so, and while the temperature is still on the low side (lower 40s), it beats the heck out of what we've been getting, and besides, we haven't seen the sun since Washington's birthday.

More to the point, perhaps, was the Austin-Healey Sprite (of course, a Bugeye) tootling along the boulevard, its driver apparently utterly unconcerned about being surrounded by vicious-looking vehicles like the Pontiac Aztek, an automotive boîte du merde that is as ugly as the Sprite is cute.

And while Bugeyes aren't very fast apart from being about 43 years old, they have only about 43 horsepower there's a certain thrill in driving the living whee out of something in an effort to stay just ahead of the traffic flow.

Besides, it was painted green, and British racing green at that. Just try to tell me that's not a sign of spring.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:42 PM)
10 March 2003
Conspiracy theory behind the dash

Americans have lots of thoughts about things automotive. (This is, in case you've forgotten or you've been living in Berkeley for the last ten years, because we actually have lots of cars and we get to drive them all over the place.) Inevitably, some of those thoughts prove to be erroneous, egregious, or downright excruciating (cf. an otherwise perfectly innocuous Honda Civic with two-thirds of its bodywork covered in bubbly decalcomania and its exhaust terminating in a Folger's can).

There is one thought which borders on the universal, though: the thought that the so-called Check Engine Light is a conspiracy against the laity, that the evil little glow means only that your local wrenchman has a boat payment due. At least once a week, I get an anguished letter from some poor soul asking how to shut the thing off, and I'm running out of variations on ways to say "Take it to the shop and have the farging codes pulled."

The truth of the matter is simply this: modern engines run with extremely tight calibrations to meet extremely tight (and becoming more so) emissions specifications, and if any one component of the twenty bazillion or so under the hood isn't pulling its weight, the Malfunction Indicator Light (to give it its correct name) snaps on and the engine computer records the appropriate error code. Unless you know what that error code is and what it means and I, buried in email, certainly can't read it from here you're out of luck. And present-day OBD II-equipped vehicles don't give up their codes to just anyone: you need the appropriate scan tool.

Which, of course, is part of the conspiracy. If you don't want to pay the dealer $75 to pull the codes, you probably also don't want to pay hundreds of dollars for your very own scanning device. But the unpleasant fact is this: the shadetree mechanic is well on his way to dropping off the Endangered Species list and into extinction. The techniques that used to work to squeeze a couple more months out of a worn set of points don't mean a thing to a mass airflow meter. And given the fact that most people think they're more mechanically inclined than they really are myself included twelve or thirteen times out of ten they're going to make matters worse by trying to fix these things themselves.

Please. Take it to the shop and have the farging codes pulled.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:44 AM)
30 March 2003
I was just following orders

In Minnesota, warning signs are yellow, and their meaning is clear:

You are responsible to recognize and react correctly.

So that's what Steve Gigl did. I think.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:11 PM)
1 April 2003
Desperation is Job 1

Ford's current advertising tagline is "If you haven't looked at Ford lately...look again."

Unless you happen to work in automotive advertising, in which case you've probably already atrophied from the clavicle up, you're going to translate this in the back of your brain as "We don't suck as much as you think we do."

Even Ford enthusiasts are largely unenthusiastic about this pitch. I'll be surprised if it lasts as long as Buick's ridiculous "It's all good" slogan, since replaced by a lame evocation of mid-20th-century automotive designer Harley Earl, whose name is likely to have meaning only to the 70-year-olds who buy LeSabres.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
30 April 2003
Hit the road, Jack

You'd never know it by looking at suburban surface streets at 5:10 pm, but driving not the mindless Point-A-to-Point-B rote you look at every day, but actual, honest-to-Fangio driving is something of an art form.

I'm not sure that Chrysler's new The Art of Driving promotion, offering participants a chance to play epicure while they sample the newest vehicles, is quite the way to make this point, although pushing Celine Dion tickets might inspire people to drive at high speeds in the opposite direction.

On the other hand, Mazda's Rev It Up program, in which you get to prove your mettle in a specially-prepped Mazda6, may be too much for some people: it's a racing school, or at least as much of a racing school as can be squeezed into one day and a $39 fee. And I have to admire the FAQ, which starts with the simple question "What is the meaning of life?"

Life is all about variety, change, new experiences. To live your life to the fullest you need periodic adventures. You need to challenge yourself.

Which reminds me: World Tour '03 is coming up this July, and at the heart of it is about 4500 miles of driving, on the superslabs and through the twisties, in big cities and small towns and everything in between. Everyone should do this at least once; this will be my third time, and I don't think I'll ever get tired of it.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:01 AM)
7 May 2003
Democracy, octane, wildflowers

Dr. Bud E. Bryan, Road Kill columnist for autoextremist.com, offers this reminder:

Leave the "fly-over" mentality at home where it belongs and savor this country from the road. It's an incredibly diverse and vast stretch of land with characteristics you don't get to see from sitting in your living room watching The Travel Channel. Stop at the historical markers, the monuments and the sights. Read about what happened before you got there. Get off the interstate and see what's happening in the rest of America. And just drive. After a while, it will dawn on you that we're all pretty fortunate to have ended up here in this land. Free to move about. Free to drink it all in. Free to roam around on our own. Free to just be. And you'll be thankful that somehow, someway, we've managed to keep it together here as a nation for over 225 years. Do it when you're young. And then do it again later. It never gets old.

I can hardly wait.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:37 AM)
12 May 2003
Getting out of Dodge

I have complained before about the mixed signals in current Chrysler advertising, and, well, I'm about to do it again.

To plug stuff like the Pacifica (don't call it a wagon, and for gosh sakes, don't call it a minivan) "sports touring vehicle", the Auburn Hills boys have adopted one of those artsy black-and-white campaigns, which is fine with me, and for one page, which is captioned simply STYLE, they've photographed an utterly lovely right foot in a strappy sandal, which is even finer with me.

Until you look past her perfect pedicure and notice that she's got her foot on the brake.

And another pleasant daydream goes sixty to zero in seconds, um, flat.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:56 PM)
18 May 2003
A Sunday drive

As American traditions go, the Sunday drive is definitely on the wane, shunted aside by our longer workweeks gotta husband that leisure time carefully, doncha know and sporadic haranguing by green types in blue states (or is that blue types in green states?) who object to any use of fuel that isn't on their Approved List. All the more reason, I figure, to take one when the schedule permits, and having gotten today's chores done early for once (clean up the bathrooms, do two loads of wash, defrag four drive partitions), I packed up some suitable tunes and hit the road. (Fred will be happy to hear that today's selections were chosen from the 1963 archives.)

Central Oklahoma, laid out mostly like a waffle iron, doesn't have anything quite like L.A.'s Mullholland Drive, but getting off the beaten path doesn't require an hour down the Interstate, either. I set the northern boundary at Wilshire, which in the city proper is noted for being halfway between 63rd and Britton Road, but which offers a quirk throughout its entire discontinuous thirty-mile length: it is at Wilshire where the section lines, and therefore the major roads which follow them, are supposedly adjusted slightly to allow for the curvature of the earth. Intersections at Wilshire are therefore decidedly non-standard, though seldom as perverse as, say, New Jersey jughandles.

I picked up Wilshire on the east side at the 9000 block, on the far side of one of those discontinuities, mainly because Douglas, which was a perfectly respectable suburban boulevard a few miles ago, shrinks as it goes; at this point, it's down to 1.4 lanes and won't go any further. It wasn't entirely clear whether I was within the city limits or not, since the intersection isn't marked. Heading eastward, I set a 40-mph pace, subject to road conditions, and observed.

Oklahoma City, for reasons having to do with ancient history "ancient" in this part of the world meaning "before 1907" is centered, not in the middle of the county, but towards its southwest corner. So this area, which starts maybe four miles from the county center, is almost entirely rural. The roads range from not bad to fairly grungy to downright awful, and they seem to change from one category to another just about every mile. Actual farming still goes on here, though it's sort of offputting to see a farm with a street address (911 insists); I saw three tractors in use, and two of them were apparently being operated by women. There were big houses and small houses, presumably designed for form rather than function; the overdesigned monstrosities in the newer developments simply don't exist out here. Someone who lives out this way who isn't farming, I have to assume, is here to get away from the rest of the world; it's hard to happen upon this neck of the woods by accident.

Somewhere around the 19300 block, there's a four-way intersection with three dead ends. Rather than back up, I chose the right turn, and found myself on a winding (well, sort of) two-lane that, surprisingly, had two houses for sale, one of which was open for inspection. And apparently I'd misjudged my location somewhat, because the open house was on a lakefront which explains the multiple dead ends, anyway. I wheeled around in a hurry and got out of there, lest I be smitten by the place.

Rethreading myself, I headed south on Luther Road and noticed that all of a sudden I was getting seriously strong cell signals. A couple miles later, I spied the tower, which happened to be a few yards from an electrical power plant. Probably the same one that supplies my juice, even. I've lived in the eastern half of the county for most of the last twenty years, and I had no idea it was even there. "I really must get out more," I decided.

And eventually I turned back westward, following Reno Avenue, the main drag through the east end, wondering what Serious Urban Planners would think of it, what with little crapbox country houses cheek by jowl with overwrought suburban McMansions, and, this being Oklahoma, a church every mile. I suspect they'd be appalled at the lack of stylistic unity, the mailboxes that haven't seen a coat of paint since the Korean War, the little gas stations where you can get your fishing and hunting licenses, and the mere fact that people are living way the hell out here a good fifteen miles from downtown and twenty miles from major shopping areas, thereby wasting precious fuelstuffs on the way. Why, I must have wasted a good two bucks' worth just looking at these things. (Which was still cheaper than dinner: $5.77 at Braum's.)

And, yes, I enjoyed every minute of it.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:55 PM)
3 June 2003
Damned old road

I remember the last time I was on US Highway 666. It was at least fairly hellish, partially due to the fact that I was just outside Gallup, New Mexico, one of the few American towns anticipated by Dante.

And "the last time" is now the literal truth, for US 666 is no more, the three states through which it runs these days (the southern spur into Arizona was snubbed years ago) having whined sufficiently to the authorities; the old Devil's Highway is now the innocuous-sounding US 491.

There's some vague sense to this three-digit US routes are generally considered tributaries of the corresponding two-digit highways, and US 66 faded into history years ago but I definitely don't envy the state highway guys who had to petition the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, who presumably had to come up with arguments meatier than "My invisible friend is upset."

There is at present no Interstate 666, though I think the number could be put to use most appropriately, by affixing it to the New Jersey Turnpike. And no, it doesn't fit into the national grid there, but if Bud Shuster can have his damnable I-99 in the middle of Pennsylvania when by rights it should be in the middle of the Bay of Fundy, there's more than enough excuse to give the Garden State its own ticket to hell and a toll ticket at that.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:44 PM)
5 June 2003
Announcing World Tour '03

It's only just now starting to take shape, but it begins on 13 July and will continue through the rest of the month and into the beginning of August.

Already things are not happening according to plan, but given the vague, inchoate nature of those plans anyway, I don't consider this a particular disadvantage.

Four venues are on the Must list this year:

Bloomington, Minnesota: The Mall of America, just because. (I will be accompanied for this segment by my two children, both of whom are hoping I will buy them stuff.)

Flat Rock, Michigan: My car would like to meet its parents, so to speak; more important, this gives me a chance to watch Dean Esmay get older.

Jamesburg, New Jersey: Annual pilgrimage to the spiritual home of tollbooths, and a two-day party.

Floyd County, Virginia: Just once I'd like to fact-check Fred on something.

As usual, I will be schlepping a notebook and will post daily updates from the road (well, actually from the hotel room); there will be a Movable Type category set up to keep the pertinent posts together.

Previous World Tours have averaged 4,500 miles or so; I suspect this one will be about the same. This very journey, needless to say, is a slap in the face of the Extremely Green, who envision a world where "Is this trip really necessary?" is exhumed from World War II rationing days and thrown up at motorists at every opportunity, and who can't imagine why someone might want to burn up a couple hundred gallons of gas for fun, fercrissake. In some ways I envy them I've never quite been able to strike the perfect balance between anxiety and smugness, something they manage almost effortlessly but they'll never understand the call of the open road, the delight of a perfectly-executed 50-mph apex on a 30-mph curve, the wonder of so many places separated by so much space. Maybe they can think about it while they wait for the bus.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:58 AM)
7 June 2003
Lo, these fuelish things

The state of Oregon isn't pulling in enough money from its 24-cent gasoline tax to cover its road-maintenance budget. What to do? Why, spend millions on a GPS-based system to tax motorists by road usage, of course.

To me, the only good reason to have a GPS in your car is to tell you that you're about to drive into the middle of Lake Itasca, a dubious functionality in my view, and there's always the concern about giving Big Brother access to my dashboard. And where will all these black boxes come from? The auto industry is going to be loath to install Oregon-specific equipment in one percent of its vehicles.

What's most annoying about this, I think, is that the state is going through all this folderol because the electorate won't put up with an increase in the gas tax, fully in keeping with today's modern "We want this service but we want someone else to pay for it" attitude. For the amount they'll spend on this, they could buy every driver in the state an early-Seventies Ford LTD or comparable beater that struggles to get 8 mpg when it's in tune, which would increase the take from the gas tax considerably and simultaneously cheese off the Greener Than Thou crowd.

(Muchas gracias: Alexander Craghead.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:35 AM)
14 June 2003
More cryptic than TripTik

Despite my best efforts, an itinerary for World Tour '03 is beginning to take shape. I have added to the list of Major Stops:

Brighton, Delaware: Nonexistent for now, but wait.

Herndon, Virginia: I am informed that it came to me in a dream.

Draw a giant clock-face on the contiguous 48 states. If you have a recommendation between noon and three, let me know.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:26 AM)
"Land Cruiser" was taken

As mentioned here earlier, Avanti Motors is reviving the Studebaker name for a humongous sport-utility vehicle dubbed XUV, the X denoting, um, "Xtreme". It's certainly xtremely large, at 216 inches long and 80 inches wide and 80 inches tall, yet. The new Stude is based on Ford's F-250 SuperDuty chassis and comes with Dearborn's 6.8-liter V10 or 6.0-liter turbodiesel V8. Contrary to a General Motors lawsuit filed earlier this year, the überStude resembles the Hummer H2 not in the least.

Do I want one of these things? Not particularly. Unless, of course, Big Brother decides to tell me that I can't have one.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:14 PM)
19 June 2003
Why we spurn mass transit

And a damned good reason, too. (Requires QuickTime)

(Muchas gracias: Accidental Julie.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:50 PM)
25 June 2003
To sleep in Detroit City

From Autoextremist.com, a summary of why the Big 2.5 (or whatever) American automakers are a long way from the comeback trail:

GM, the most profitable of what's left of the Big Three, earned $701 per vehicle in North America. Chrysler earned just $226, and Ford made no money at all. In contrast, Nissan made $2069 per vehicle, Toyota $1,214 and Honda $880. Labor costs for the Detroit-based car companies are anywhere between $300 and $400 more than costs for their Asian rivals, and when health care and pension costs are factored in, the gap widens dramatically. The domestic car companies are paying through the nose chasing non-product issues, while their Asian rivals are pouring profits back into research & development and meaningful product improvements. Detroit's share of the North American market dropped from 65.2% in 2000, to 61.6% in 2002.

That's $300-400 per vehicle, mind you. And these numbers (from the Harbour Report) appeared just in time for negotiations with the United Auto Workers, too. How will the UAW address these issues? Autoextremist.com quotes union president Ron Gettelfinger:

"Make no mistake about this: We are not going to shift health care costs in negotiations with the Big Three. We're not going to pick up premiums, we're not going to pick up co-pays, we're not going to pick up deductibles."

The UAW, judging by the numbers I've seen, is starting to get a handle on the quality-control issue; maybe they can deal with only one problem at a time?

None of this implies that Ford or GM is doomed, necessarily, or that the Daimler-Benz guys are rethinking their ownership of the Chrysler Group. But clearly they can't go on with such meager margins, and there seems to be a real fear that if the flood of rebates is shut off, market share will dwindle even faster.

Which is why, more than ever, what Detroit needs is superior product, cars and trucks and whatever the hell falls between, vehicles so good that Joe and Susan Sixpack, whom they lost to Toyota years ago, will rush back into the showrooms and sign the check and not expect $2000 cash back. I have no doubt that they can do it: but will the planners and the bean counters and the union actually let them do it?

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:24 AM)
3 July 2003
The formula for Formula 1

David E. Davis, Jr., founder and something-or-other-emeritus of Automobile magazine, points out in the August '03 issue (not yet online as of this writing) that Formula 1 auto racing has become (horrors!) dull and boring:

The current formula should be junked. It has led to cars that cannot pass each other on the venues chosen for their races, and races that are no longer decided by courage, daring, and mastery of the machine but by pit stop and tire strategies.

And even if F1 Looming Presence Bernie Ecclestone could be persuaded to make these changes, Formula 1 would still be a flop in the States, predicts Davis:

Formula 1 prospers only in countries with socialist governments and a history of soccer riots. The greedy economics of Formula 1 make it a lose-lose proposition for any organization other than a big-spending welfare state.

Our hooligans, of course, prefer NASCAR. And my personal racing fantasies run to time/distance rallying in cars vaguely resembling stock, sort of what you'd have if you turned NASCARmobiles loose on, say, Arkansas 7, though I'd insist on having my incredibly-gorgeous co-pilot (leadfoot up to perfect mid-thigh) at my side, of course, which pretty much eliminates sneaking a car out of Darlington in the dead of night.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:19 PM)
5 July 2003
The Alfa male

Kim du Toit would love to have a Giulia.

And can you blame him? I can't. Yeah, the engine is ancient the 1.3 DOHC four goes all the way back to the '54 Giulietta and yeah, it's built with all the craftsmanship you expect from Italian cars, which is to say none, and what's more, it's not even gorgeous. (The Duetto convertible version built by Pininfarina is gorgeous, but that's not the one he wants.)

Not that any of that matters when you get it out on the road. The little engine revs like crazy and the suspension keeps you on curves that would throw more mundane vehicles into the guardrail. Or so I'm assuming, anyway; that's been the case with every Italian car I've ever driven, even the bottom-feeder fwd Fiat Strada. There's only 90 hp to play with, but the car weighs barely more than a ton, even a couple hundred pounds lighter than BMW's reborn Mini Cooper, so quickness and litheness are baked into the package.

Alfa is coming back to the States, perhaps by 2007, and they're promising a "full range" of cars, to include something vaguely SUV-like, but the idea will be to position Alfa as a premium Eurobrand, so there's not much chance of a budget buzz bomb in the Giulia tradition, even if they still built one. Which they don't.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:19 PM)
4 August 2003
Induction into the rotary club

The Professor has bagged himself a Mazda RX-8, the very car I was drooling upon at the local dealership last Friday. (Well, not the same literal car, but you know what I mean.)

What I want to know is: Did he get the stick shift?

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:36 PM)
7 August 2003
None so fine as 69

Get your minds out of the gutter. (Yes, I know this was a favorite phrase of my high-school class, but climb up on the curb for a moment, fercrissake.)

Chris Lawrence, a cheerful fellow I met up at Dean Esmay's birthday party last month, runs a site called I69Info.com, all about Interstate 69, the very road I took out of Indianapolis to start my trek up to Dean's place, and how it's eventually going to be extended south. Way south. I'm talking south Texas here.

The number of motor vehicles in this country is increasing faster than the number of miles of roadway, so I'm definitely interested in stuff like this, if only because I may need to drive somewhere someday.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:08 PM)
12 August 2003
Forward-motion devices

The Professor tells us what it's like to whip a Mazda RX-8 around town and out in the twisties.

Which means, for me as a D-list blogger anyway, that it's time I finished off this box of Cheerios and did some testing on the little metal NASCAR simulacrum packed therein.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:37 AM)
20 August 2003
Slow and proud of it

With the return of school comes the return of school zones, and a new season of one peculiar subset of left-lane bandits. You know the ones I mean: nailed for six over while they were in the school zone, they are now plodding along at six under, trying to create the illusion that they are morally upright, law-abiding citizens. The rest of the world quite properly views them, not as pillars of the community, but as mobile speed bumps.

What's worse, of course, is getting two of these twits in parallel on a four-lane, which is what happened this morning. The clod to the left, in a late-Seventies GM beater with the not-quite-completely-detached headliner whipping around the interior like a bullfighter's cape, finally got the message and pulled over to the right, but it took him miles to see the light. I'm sure he'll get some sort of commendation from the Anti-Destination League.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:37 AM)
24 August 2003
Don't just stand there, ride!

How did I miss this? Blame it on magazine specifically, Automobile magazine lead times; this story showed up in the September issue.

Christie's auto auction at Rockefeller Center in early June offered 42 vehicles, including a one-off Abarth Biposto from 1952, a Morgan Plus Four roadster, and Frank Sinatra's Lamborghini Miura (a hideous shade of orange), but here's what's way out there on the asymptote marked High Weirdness: somebody bid $6463, about fifteen hundred dollars over sticker, for a new-in-box Segway Human Transporter gizmo.

Car craziness, I conclude, extends well beyond mere cars.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:12 PM)
25 August 2003
Don't ask about gas mileage

What would you do with a million euros?

If your immediate answer is "Buy a car," here's the car you're going to buy: the Bugatti Veyron 16.4, which will be produced by Volkswagen (!) in a limited edition of three hundred for yes, one million euros. Plus tax.

If your response to this is "But this is insane," well, you'll get no argument from me. I mean, a million euros would buy you quite a fleet of Volkswagen's real cars.

Still, zero to 300 km/h (188 mph) in 14 seconds? Top speed of 400 km/h?

No. NO. I must look away now.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:29 PM)
4 September 2003

Septembers in Oklahoma have been known to be heinously hot, but this one is starting out beautifully, if you can overlook the morning fog, which of late has been almost tactile; you want to reach out of the window, grab a handful, and shove it out of your way. But it burns off by nine, and this evening, with twilight shading itself into the background, Domenico Modugno crooning from the center console (ah, mono), and still air just warm enough to justify the reach to the A/C button, it was a lovely drive down good old 62.

Unfortunately, the reason I was on good old 62 at a quarter past eight was because I'd just gotten off work; the elements which normally cooperate perfunctorily at best didn't bother to go through the motions today, and my 13-hour-plus day, horrid as it was, was still shorter than the sentences served by a couple of other poor souls.

Still, with just that faintest hint of the day that was, accompanied by a song both down-to-earth and otherworldly (I know very little Italian that isn't in some way pasta-related), it was a sweet end to a day that otherwise went on too long.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:39 PM)
6 September 2003

So I'm listening to Car Talk this morning, and the young woman from the East Village is describing the no-start issues with her car, and either Click or Clack asks: "Is this a Honda?"

And of course it's not: "It's an Acura Integra."

Either an unprecedented level of restraint or the miracle of post-production editing prevented them from responding "It's still a Honda."

I wonder how many Lexus owners realize they're driving Toyotas.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:11 AM)
7 September 2003
The return of American iron

Peter M. DeLorenzo, the original Autoextremist, has his hopes up:

After the domestic manufacturers succeeded in brainwashing the American public over the last 25 years that front-wheel-drive offered superior traction and handling and that we'd all die without it (even though it was simply a convenient engineering packaging decision for getting larger interiors into "downsized" cars), the mavericks at DaimlerChrysler have basically decided to "Go Big or Go Home" and build substantial, roomy cars, with Hemi V8 power and rear-wheel drive offering the kind of balanced handling and overall performance that Europeans have been selling here in BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes for years. A lot of people in the business view the move as being a huge risk, because it may alienate drivers in the Northeast part of the U.S. and in other snowbelt states. But I happen to believe that people will be clamoring for something different, and a lot of people even in the snowbelt states will embrace these new cars for what they are: Big, bold, American statement cars with power, performance and style (even though they share some underpinnings with the previous generation E Class Mercedes). Sometimes in this business, you have to just go for it, and the Chrysler Group, by going in directions that the other car companies can't or won't will have a couple of big-time hits on their hands by next spring.

I don't have a problem with the Benz bits; Chrysler didn't have any suitable (which is to say, "non-truck") RWD platform of its own, and really, if you're going to dip into someone's parts bin, the Mercedes parts bin is generally a pretty nice place to rummage around.

I've seen photos of these cars, and while the Dodge Magnum, which will be issued first as a wagon, looks too much like an armored vehicle for Middle East arms dealers, the Chrysler 300C comes off as a solid, traditional American sedan, with all of that legendary genre's virtues (incredible amounts of room, the ability to consume vast numbers of highway miles in short periods) and vices (gawd, but that's a lot of brightwork in its mouth). Considering what we've been getting in the way of American sedans have you looked at Ford lately? the prospects for these Mopars look good, and I've tentatively added the 300C to my short list of Vehicles To Consider next time around. For me, this is a sea change, since normally I shop for a modicum of performance within the context of minimum visibility, but as the man says, sometimes you have to go big or go home.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:35 AM)
29 September 2003
World Tour 1903

No, I didn't do this one; it was fifty years before I was born, fercryingoutloud.

And in 1903, the idea of a cross-country motor trip was simply unheard of. This was long before Interstates there were few roads as we know them, and no pavement to speak of and long before mass-produced motor vehicles. In fact, it was before you could even get auto parts; Henry Leland was only just then assuming command at Cadillac, and had yet to introduce the startling concept of standardized, mass-produced, interchangeable parts, a notion which would win Cadillac a Dewar Trophy in 1908.

In the Age of Teddy Roosevelt, though, a sense of adventure was still something in good supply, and in 1903, a Vermont physician, Dr Horatio Nelson Jackson, having bet $50 (a tidy sum in those days) that he could cross the country in a car in 90 days or less, put his motor where his mouth was, and set off from San Francisco with the hope of getting to New York in one piece.

This is the sort of period Americana that almost cries out for a Ken Burns-type documentary, and as good fortune would have it, Horatio's Drive, a documentary directed by, yes, Ken Burns, will premiere in October on PBS. Once again, Burns' partner is Dayton Duncan, who worked with him on Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997).

Nowadays, people drive four thousand miles without so much as breaking a sweat; seeing what it was like a hundred years ago should be a revelation.

(Muchas gracias: Syaffolee.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:44 PM)
20 October 2003
Yeah, but how does it handle?

The Buick LaCrosse sedan/sport/utility/whatever vehicle, replacement for the aged Regal, will be sold in Canada, but not with that name.

To us, "lacrosse" is a sport played on a field with sticks. To the Québécois, apparently, it's a solo act, practiced often in the bathroom, rumored to cause hair growth on one's palms and/or blindness.

General Motors product czar Bob Lutz, addressing GM dealers in Toronto, professed to be surprised: "I thought I knew every expression existing in the French language for self-gratification, including the crudest ones known to man," he said.

The new Canadian name has not been announced, though I suspect it will probably not be "Nova", the name of a Chevrolet model which according to legend (the facts say otherwise) didn't play well in Spanish-speaking countries.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:19 PM)
24 October 2003
Counting those ponies

At least at the higher end of the market, we're in something of a horsepower war these days, with automakers scrambling to outdo the competition with dazzling numbers. Routine V6 family sedans now pack 200 hp or more; dedicated sports machines can carry 300, 400, sometimes more. Generally, this is a Good Thing too small an engine will be strained, and gas mileage will be as bad, if not worse, than with a bigger mill but while the SAE net horsepower standard is pretty well established in North America, there are a few potential fudge factors baked into it, and a number of automakers have been tripped up when testing revealed fewer horses than advertised.

The proposed new SAE standard will tighten up the specs, and will allow for independent review of horsepower ratings. It's not a cure-all, and there's still going to be no conversion factor between SAE net and the pre-1970s SAE gross rating, but anything that improves the accuracy of automotive specifications gets a smile from me.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:32 AM)
25 October 2003

Our road warriors cover much of the Mountain time zone, so while I was making notes for some future ('06?) World Tour, I popped the question to one of them: "How would you organize a trip to Montana from here without having to go through Denver?"

The warrior beamed, for he knew that this time he would not have to impart the lesson of a lifetime: Do not, under any circumstances, go through Denver.

As it happens, Fûz has been contemplating what it's like to go through Denver, and he thinks the plans being implemented are wrong-headed and utterly miss the point. His thesis:

A beltway is supposed to relieve the downtown of the traffic burden of mainline highways crossing the city. Travelers who want to go through Denver should be encouraged to drive the extra miles, on very nicely built roads with high speed limits, to skip the traffic and the hassle, and even to relocate some of the air pollution away from downtown. Ten bucks of tolls does not constitute encouragement to drive 46 miles instead of 32, especially for heavy trucks whose per-mile and per-minute costs are higher.

Those extra 14 miles come from taking the new E470 route instead of I-25. As an alternative, Fûz proposes a High Occupancy/Toll lane on I-25 with limited access and egress. For the Interstate traveler heading north (as I would be, except of course that I'm trying to avoid going through Denver), the Fûz plan offers three choices:

  1. Go straight up I-25, quickly and without dodging local traffic. You pay one toll at the Lone Tree plaza, just North of Exit 191. Stay in the HOT lane until you pass the Boulder Pike plaza and you pay nothing more.

  2. Go straight up I-25, local lanes, and dodge the local traffic. Count on spending 45 minutes more to do so in lieu of paying the toll.

  3. Take E470, you pay nothing.

Even if it's ten bucks for #1, this strikes me as more sensible; the whole idea of E470 should be to divert people (especially local traffic) from I-25 in the first place, and you don't divert people by hitting them with both a toll and a greater distance to drive.

In Oklahoma, where we all hate toll roads with a passion, some of them are actually justified, and none of them more so than the Kilpatrick Turnpike, which describes a 120-degree arc from I-35 near the Oklahoma City/Edmond line to I-40 out near El Reno. The northern segment of the Kilpatrick runs more or less parallel to Memorial Road, a major east-west artery that is hopelessly clogged with local traffic. Is it worth a buck to bypass all that to go from the eastern terminus (roughly the 5000 block east) to, say, Quail Springs Mall (roughly 2500 west)? Easily. And if you use the RF devices, it's only 90 cents.

My new commute, once I'm into the new digs, will run about 11 miles, three times what I'm used to, and that includes a loop on I-44 east to I-35 south. Both of these roads are fairly heinous in the morning hours, and the I-44 segment includes the infamous Belle Isle Bridge. If I confine myself to surface streets, the distance shortens to about 9 miles, though the time required increases markedly. There are no plans to make either of the two Interstate segments toll roads at this time. (The portion of I-44 actually in Oklahoma City is one of the few stretches in the state that isn't a toll road.) And taking the Kilpatrick itself adds 15 miles to the trip. But would I pay, say, $2 a day for a 70-mph Kilpatrick-like breeze through the city? In a heartbeat. There's no room for another in-town loop, though, and I doubt that ODOT could get Fûz to go to work for them.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:00 PM)
7 November 2003
As long as it's gray

Toyota's youth-oriented Scion division is contemplating offering cars without factory paint jobs.

At the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association show in Las Vegas, Scion showed an unpainted xA hatchback; its sheetmetal was covered with standard gray primer only. Hardcore tuners right in the middle of Scion's target market apparently have been buying cars and sanding off the factory paint, then applying their own custom paint.

As yet, Scion is sold only on the West Coast; I have no idea how well this will go over when, a year or so for now, Toyota starts selling these vehicles here on the Lone Prairie.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:11 PM)
8 November 2003
So we tanned her hide when she died, Clyde

A couple of months ago, Automobile's Eddie Alterman said something or other about the leather upholstery in the new Lamborghini Gallardo and tacked on a quip about an alarm going off in PETA headquarters.

Which, apparently, it did. The December '03 issue contains a letter from PETA president Ingrid Newkirk which makes the following claim:

We're currently in talks with car companies over the leather issue. More and more top-line car buyers want a non-leather interior. The smell of leather, the thought of where it comes from, and the growing number of vegetarians and nonviolence advocates post-September 11, 2001, are making the pleather-over-leather buyer demand options.

The next time I'm at the dealership in addition to mere Mazdas, they sell Cadillacs, Audis, Porsches, Land-Rovers and Infinitis I'll ask them if anyone at all has requested a leather-delete option.

And if someone wants to explain to me why the events of 9/11 would have turned someone into a vegetarian, I'd love to hear it.

Meanwhile, I'll be sitting on the modest cloth upholstery in my car as I drive to the furniture store in search of a leather sofa. Just because.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:52 AM)
3 December 2003
Insert Speedway joke here

The Indianapolis Police Department is running short on traffic tickets. The Marion County Superior Court apparently underestimated the number of citations that would be handed out when placing its order for the ticket forms last year.

Which is undoubtedly why the order for next year's forms, which just went in, calls for a 25-percent increase and Indy is covering the difference with a 36-percent increase in the base traffic fine.

(Via Fark)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:56 PM)
4 December 2003
Thereby redefining "speed freak"

One of the features this month in Automobile magazine (18 pages!) deals with rock stars and their cars.

Geez, what a waste. I can see giving some space to Sammy Hagar after all, he can't drive 55, a feeling many of us can appreciate but why would it matter to anyone what Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) or Wyclef Jean (Fugees) or Mark Knopfler drives?

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:12 AM)
5 December 2003
Maybe you can get there from here

The Oklahoman reports that there is no construction on Interstate 35 between here and Kansas City.

Yes, that is news. I've driven this route for various reasons for twenty years or so my descendants are clustered at the far end, you may remember and I don't remember any time when there wasn't at least some road work going on.

Of course, if I really need to remind myself what it's like, I can always turn the other way: there is plenty of construction between here and Norman, and more heading into Texas.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:10 AM)
10 December 2003
Inconspicuous consumption

I never did quite understand why DaimlerChrysler felt the need to exhume the name and the nameplate of Wilhelm and Karl Maybach to sell a new ultra-luxe sedan with a price tag that looks more like a real-estate deal; wasn't Mercedes-Benz supposed to be "Das Beste oder Nichts"?

Whatever they might have been thinking, the child of this German brain trust, the putative vehicle of choice for NBA stars, rappers, and other people with more money than taste, is moving in numbers which can be charitably described as "limited": Autoextremist.com reports that Maybach sold all of eight cars last month, bringing the yearly total to a startling 59. At three hundred K per copy (for the short-wheelbase 57; add fifty K for the 62, half a meter longer), that's still a fair chunk of change, but it's not the sort of volume with which one can challenge Rolls-Royce.

Except maybe this year. BMW, owner of the Rolls-Royce name and tradition, has issued something called the Phantom, which in its own way is as over the top as the Maybach. Eight of them crawled out of showrooms in November, making 79 for the year.

Still, you probably shouldn't venture into your local dealership expecting rebates.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:34 PM)
17 December 2003
A Saab story

There is reason to be suspicious of the upcoming Saab 9-7X, not least because it's basically the same platform that General Motors has been selling as the Chevrolet TrailBlazer (not to mention GMC, Buick and, for the next few months anyway, Oldsmobile versions) and sneaking out the back door to Isuzu stores as the Ascender. Whatever Saab might require in its hour of need, it wouldn't seem to be Yet Another Generic Sport-Utility Vehicle.

On the other hand, so long as Saab sales are in the doldrums and SUVs continue to move, it's hard to blame GM, which has yet to make any money from its purchase of Saab's automotive business, for wanting to get some return on its investment, and if this artist's conception is at all accurate, there will be a fair number of buyers lined up at the Saab store who will have no idea that the sturdy Swedish steed before them was bred from purely American stock.

No comment from me on the Subaru-based 9-2. Yet.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:08 PM)
24 December 2003
Doing a slow burn

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is seeking public comment on revising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. The most obvious comment, I think, is "What does fuel economy have to do with traffic safety?" Apart from the obvious laws-of-physics considerations all else being equal, the heavier vehicle, while it uses more fuel, tends to come out better in a crash the answer would seem to be "Not much."

The real problem for the government here is that they can't very well come out in favor of greater vehicle weight, because the Greener Than Thou folks who begrudge any use of fuel that doesn't strike their fancy will pitch the hissiest of fits, and if NHTSA should choose to embrace economy above all else, there will be hell to pay from the auto industry, which fears consumer rejection if they simplify and add lightness, and from the insurance industry, which fears anything that might cost them a dollar somewhere down the road.

The answer is hidden in their request for comments, but they don't really recognize it as an answer:

[W]e intend to preserve the ability of consumers to obtain vehicles that meet their needs, while providing competitive equity among vehicle manufacturers, improving vehicle safety, and enhancing fuel economy.

The simplest way to do this is to dump the entire concept of CAFE, which so far has produced far more pages of regulation than gallons of gas. If it is necessary to, um, persuade consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, a proposition rather difficult to defend without falling back on "Because we said so," the most direct approach is to increase the tax on fuel. This puts the decision into the hands of the individual, where it rightfully belongs. If J. Random Driver still wants a Ford Excrescence or whatever that will cost him $100 every fillup, that should be his issue not yours, not mine, not Washington's, and not the Sierra Club's.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:19 PM)
2 January 2004
Halfway measures

A question from Alan K. Henderson:

Can anyone tell me why Austin has a 38½ Street?

The short answer: well, it's between 38th and 39th. In Austin generally, the half-streets are used in preference to dubbing one of them "Place" or "Terrace", as is done up here in Oklahoma; the highest-numbered street in Austin, if I remember correctly, is 56½ Street.

If you exit west from I-35 at 38½ Street, eventually (west of Red River Street, I believe) you will be diverted onto 38th, which in turn mutates into 35th. Visitors are perplexed; so are residents.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:55 AM)
8 January 2004
But not for U

If you show up at U-Haul with a Ford Explorer, you will leave without the trailer you were planning to tow; The Detroit News is reporting that U-Haul International has forbidden its 17,000 local outlets to rent trailers to Explorer owners, citing ongoing lawsuits involving America's largest-selling sport-utility vehicle.

The ban applies to all model years, despite the fact that most of the litigation, including the Firestone debacle, involved the previous generation of the Explorer; Ford redesigned the truck for 2003 with an independent rear suspension, which enhances handling and lowers the center of gravity.

Curiously, the Mercury Mountaineer, which is basically the Explorer with a brushed-aluminum interior and the top-line powertrain, is not included in the ban.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:48 AM)
14 January 2004
Et tu, Subaru?

The pavement-inhaling WRX aside, Subaru, perhaps more than any other automotive marque, gets respect from the Greener Than Thou crowd, inasmuch as it makes generally sensibly-sized vehicles which eschew the more egregious frills one finds on other brands; Fuji Heavy Industries, the manufacturer, is viewed as the Anti-Detroit. (The fact that General Motors owns a small chunk of Fuji is either overlooked or ignored.)

So there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth when word gets around that there will be just enough modifications made to the 2005 edition of Subaru's popular Outback wagon and sedan to qualify them under Federal regulations as light trucks, subject to a less-stringent fuel-economy standard. The reason for this is blindingly simple: there's a horsepower race on, and Subaru doesn't want to be left behind. The wagon, at least, might pass for a truck, given the proliferation of crossover quasi-SUVs, but the sedan?

One wail has already been heard. The Sierra Club's Daniel Becker, seeing shades of 1984 in these 2005 models, pronounced: "This is a new low for the auto industry and it would make George Orwell proud." I would remind Mr Becker that when you have stupid rules (and Corporate Average Fuel Economy is the poster child for stupid rules), you can expect stupid stratagems to get around them.

(Via Autoextremist.com)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:54 AM)
26 January 2004
Looming larger

When Toyota pulled ahead of DaimlerChrysler to become the world's third-largest automaker, there were rumblings in Detroit. There will no doubt be more of the same now that Toyota has passed Ford to take over the number-two slot.

For calendar year 2003, Toyota sold 6.78 million vehicles worldwide, a hair above Ford's 6.72 million though the Ford total does not include approximately one million Mazdas. (Ford owns 33.4 percent of Mazda, enough to give it corporate control under Japanese law.)

Toyota is shooting for 15 percent of the world market, which would be sufficient to displace General Motors at the top; GM currently holds a 14.7-percent market share worldwide.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:55 AM)
Worst. Wheels. Ever. (2.)

New poll at Forbes.com: The Worst Cars of All Time.

The nominees seem plausible enough at least there's a Trabant though I have some problems with the Edsel listing, inasmuch as (1) it's not a Ford (it was based on a Ford, except for the top two trim lines in Edsel's first year, which were built off a larger Mercury platform) and (2) the model years in question were not 1957-59, but 1958-60.

In Vent #260, I held up the Chevrolet Vega as an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences:

David E. Davis, Jr., last seen as the Editor Emeritus of Automobile magazine, worked on the ill-fated Chevrolet Vega project alongside the late GM stalwart Frank Winchell, and after the car was sent to the junkyard of history, Winchell told Davis: "That was the best bunch of guys I ever worked with, some of the brightest people I knew, and that still turned out to be the worst car we ever built. Not once do I remember any one of those individuals coming into the room yelling, 'Hey, you guys! I got it! Here's what we're gonna do! We're gonna build a really shitty little car!'"

The best-laid plans, and all that.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:21 PM)
22 February 2004
Who's gonna drive you home?

When Governor Schwarzenegger moved to roll back California's motor-vehicle license fees, prompting the usual suspects to challenge the move in court, the city of Berkeley calculated that it would lose $1.3 million, and decided there had to be another way to pry money out of the owners of those hateful belching machines.

What they came up with was a tax on owners of multiple cars. The amount has yet to be determined Councilman Kriss Worthington, who owns no cars, says the "outer edge" might be $1000 and there's some doubt as to how it could be implemented in the first place, but details like that won't stop Mayor Tom Bates:

If we had the option, we'd do it in a heartbeat. We feel cars are a luxury that is expensive for the community.

Meanwhile, across the Bay, Assemblyman Mark Leno has proposed a measure to return the license fee in San Francisco to pre-Schwarzenegger levels. Personally, I think that if San Francisco needs an infusion of cash, they should just increase the current $82 marriage-license fee to maybe, oh, $1000 at the "outer edge."

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:05 PM)
5 April 2004
It's better by half

Ford is coming under fire in Britain for an attempt at viral marketing in which the sunroof of the SportKa minicar, in the process of closing, decapitates a cat.

According to Ford, this campaign and a similar one showing a pigeon smacking into the hood were developed and promptly rejected for reasons of taste; they have no idea how they were leaked to the Net.

Ads for GM's Vauxhall unit have already attacked the Ford spots as "acts of such blatant cruelty in a desperate attempt to sell cars."

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:30 AM)
20 April 2004
Rolling chicanes

Maybe it was the humidity, maybe it was the threat of thunderstorms, maybe it was just bad luck, but this morning's jaunt from Surlywood to 42nd and Treadmill was far more complicated than usual, owing to heavy participation by hardcore members of the Anti-Destination League, people who watch their vehicles, their whole vehicles, and nothing but their vehicles. I had to dodge (or, in a couple of cases, chevy) half a dozen of these miscreants over the eleven-mile run, and while the average speed was about the same as usual, the fluctuations were ferocious; I had to come up with a brief 82-mph burst to shake off a cluster of motorized cockleburs, something I don't much enjoy doing when a 40-mph exit is waiting for me a thousand feet ahead.

On the other hand, Sandy, the little blonde sedan who is the other half of this team, seemed happy to open up a can of Zoom Zoom on these people, and I suppose that if it gladdens her two-liter heart, it's probably a Good Thing.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:21 AM)
21 April 2004
Fuels rush in where wise men never go

As a person who actually likes cars, as distinguished from the folks who view them as (at best) necessary evils, I tend to take a dim view of the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy scheme. How dim? I wrote this in December:

CAFE...so far has produced far more pages of regulation than gallons of gas. If it is necessary to, um, persuade consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, a proposition rather difficult to defend without falling back on "Because we said so," the most direct approach is to increase the tax on fuel. This puts the decision into the hands of the individual, where it rightfully belongs.

As an object lesson in how purely arbitrary these so-called "standards" are, the NHTSA announced this week that Nissan will be exempted for the next five years from one of them: the so-called "two-fleet" rule, which specifies that imported models and domestics must meet the standards separately. GM, for instance, can't use the tiny Chevrolet Aveo, produced by what's left of Daewoo in South Korea, to offset an Impala.

In Nissan's case, the small Sentra sedan, assembled in Mexico, has been balancing out Infiniti Q45s and such from Japan. Under the rules of NAFTA, the Sentra will be reclassified as a domestic as of 2005, meaning Nissan's imports will no longer meet CAFE targets. NHTSA's decision, opposed by actual US automakers, means that Nissan can count both imports and domestics in a single fleet.

This is only the second such waiver granted by NHTSA since the beginnings of CAFE. (Volkswagen got the first; it has since expired.) Nissan had threatened to cut production at its two US plants, one in Mississippi, the other in Tennessee, should the waiver not be granted. Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) and Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) what a surprise! had lobbied NHTSA to cut Nissan some slack.

The two-fleet rule is, of course, rather stupid. So is the rule which counts cars and "light trucks" in separate fleets: to pick just one example of egregiousness, Chrysler's PT Cruiser, which has a removable back seat, is considered a truck except for its convertible version, whose back seat is not removable, which means it's a car.

There's no justification for this program anymore, if indeed there ever was. The government can publish all the fuel-economy numbers it wants, but buyers have the right to ignore them should they so desire, and manufacturers, once basic safety standards are met, shouldn't have to answer to Washington for their design decisions.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:03 AM)
28 April 2004
Gutless supreme

General Motors today unwraps a limited-edition (500 copies) Oldsmobile Alero to mark the end of America's oldest automotive nameplate. I have to wonder: why bother? The Alero, a relentlessly-average compact sedan, is the very antithesis of what Oldsmobile was in its glory days: the General's skunkworks, its experimental division, the place where high tech was put to the test before it filtered down to the rest of the GM brands. (Think "Rocket 88" or "Toronado".)

After GM decided to save a few bucks by pooling the engineering teams, rather than assigning engineers to individual marques, Oldsmobiles ceased to be distinctive and became Buicks with different trim packages. One wag posited that "Oldsmobile" was in fact an acronym: "Old, Leisurely-Driven Sedan Made Of Buick's Inferior Leftover Equipment." And when the General's attention was drawn away by the Saturn experiment, a painfully-obvious attempt to see if it was possible to sell ordinary cars with extraordinary dealer service, Olds was doomed: the only surprise is that some other GM marque, Buick or Pontiac, didn't go with it. (And Pontiac, with a lineup notably devoid of "excitement" only the new GTO, a rebadged Holden Monaro from Australia, has any appeal to the driving enthusiast has perhaps even less reason to live than Oldsmobile.)

This isn't the first time GM has shed brands. In the Twenties, companion makes were introduced for every division except Chevrolet. Buick's Marquette and Oldsmobile's Viking died at the beginning of the Great Depression; Cadillac's LaSalle held out until 1940. Pontiac survived, but its parent Oakland was put to sleep.

If there's still an Oldsmobile dealer near you, he has Aleros and Bravadas. The Bravada is a truck, a sport-utility vehicle that is shared with other GM divisions. Ransom Eli Olds died in 1950; I wouldn't be surprised to hear that deep within his crypt at Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing, Michigan, the town that Oldsmobile built, Mr Olds is doing about 600 rpm.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
9 May 2004
Meanwhile, the Amish spurn Kia

Aaron Robinson of Car and Driver (June '04) detects mixed signals from the Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG:

The E55's oversize wheels, quadraphonic tailpipes, and tasteful sill skirts beckon discerning adults looking for warp-speed wa-hoos! But the murky interior is about restraint. It's all black, as if a coal shaft had collapsed around you. Even the wood trim is stained the color of soot. The only dazzle allowed is the silver gauge fascia and a few razor-thin chrome streaks on the dash. The apparent message: With horsepower comes equivalent responsibility. The E55 is the supercar for Lutherans.


I remember when C/D said of some Honda (probably an Accord) that its primary appeal would be to Presbyterians. I'm not a wild and crazy guy myself, but I have no reason to think that either denomination is utterly devoid of wack-job gearheads.

And come to think of it, the E55, besides being about three times beyond any conceivable automotive budget I might have, inverts my own particular desiderata: while I don't want some blindingly-flashy Atari dash, I'd much rather have the bucks spent on spiffing up the interior than on a bunch of obvious Arrest Me parts for the outside.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:57 PM)
13 May 2004
A man and his dreams

Like most people, I have a list of Dreams Unfulfilled; once in a blue moon well, actually, I'm now averaging one every other year, which is better than I had any reason to expect I manage to cross one off.

The automotive section of this list has been kept deliberately small, mostly to dissuade me from assuming mountains of debt in pursuit of something thereupon. Still, I've gotten back into road-trip mode, something I gave up too many years ago; I've actually driven a Maserati (okay, it was a Quattroporte, but it's a lot more of a Maser than that godawful Chrysler thing); I've seen Duesenbergs in the flesh sheet metal; and one strange week in Los Angeles, I drove both Dead Man's Curve (what's left of it, anyway) and Mulholland Drive.

However, I have never, ever seen a Tucker.

Preston Tucker never managed to get series production started on his rear-engined marvel back in 1948, and only 51 cars were built on the pilot production line. But forty-seven of them are still around, and one of them (serial #1043, if you're keeping score) sold at auction this past January for $495,000. There isn't a chance I'll ever get any seat time in any Tucker, but see one I shall, some day.

(Hmmm. 1948 again. Regular readers will remember that Surlywood was built in that mysterious year, five years before my birth. What other secrets have been waiting for me these five and a half decades?)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:11 PM)
20 May 2004
Fluid dynamics

I reprint this item from On the Table at Autoextremist.com, just as a reminder:

Notice the hue and cry lately across all spectrums of the media from whining motorists who are shocked shocked that their various vehicles get worse mileage than the EPA estimates claimed they would? And the loudest whining seems to be coming from motorists who bought hybrids and expected the sun, moon and the stars from their vehicles only to discover that they're getting much worse mileage than promised. Message to all offended motorists: Pay attention to the words on your EPA mileage label that says, "Your mileage may vary." Because it will, and it does. Then get over it.

There is, of course, the question of how quick I'd be to post this if I were getting lower mileage than the EPA estimates on my own vehicle.

Besides, the very nature of a hybrid makes it almost impossible to match the numbers on the antiquated EPA test. What's more, some vehicles have been tailored to get the maximum numbers possible on the test some Corvettes "encourage" you to shift from first to fourth while accelerating.

But what do you expect? These are government-approved numbers; they'll never be better than "close enough for government work."

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:52 AM)
25 May 2004
Blue hair day

To the somnolent old coot in the faded grey Buick:

Fifty-four in a 60 zone does not confer upon you any moral superiority.

Enjoy your membership in the Anti-Destination League.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:03 PM)
23 June 2004
Fluid dynamics

Sandy, my battered (no thanks to spring hailstorms) Mazda sedan, got her 30,000-mile fluid replacements today, only 2276 miles late, and she got a clean bill of health from the techs, which is always nice, especially since she's only about three-fourths paid for.

And while the tab $431 might seem stiff, I look upon it as cheap insurance; after all, we're about to hit the road for four thousand miles, and the last thing I need is to be sidetracked by some sort of system failure, especially now that the warranty (3 years) has expired.

My maintenance schedule, in some regards, is more extensive than that recommended by the manufacturer; there is no way, for instance, that I'm going to keep the same batch of coolant for 50,000 miles, no matter what color it is.

Of course, when this really starts to get expensive is at 60,000 miles, when in addition to everything that was done today, I get to change out the timing belt. (Unless, of course, I've somehow managed to relocate to California or to parts of the Northeast, where the same timing belt magically retains its tension and its teeth for a full 105,000 miles, the result, I assume, of the stroke of the governor's pen rather than any actual engineering.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:42 PM)
24 June 2004
Not as think as you drunk I am

Fritz Schranck notes that Delaware is the only state which has not reduced its too-drunk-to-drive level from 0.10 percent to 0.08. Failure to do so will cost Delaware federal highway dollars, in a process known outside government circles as "blackmail."

Personally, I hope Delaware stands its ground. Both the original 0.10-percent figure and the new, unimproved 0.08 number are purely arbitrary, and no one has shown any evidence that highways are any safer with the tighter limit. In most alcohol-related crashes, the offending driver is well over 0.10 percent; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration admits that more than half of DUI busts nab drivers at 0.20, and two-thirds of fatalities involve drivers over 0.15. Dropping the limit from 0.10 to 0.08 was simply an effort to Look Like We're Doing Something and to buy silence from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has grown increasingly hysterical over the years.

The two Delaware politicians who are blocking 0.08 are Senate President pro tem Thurman Adams and Senator James Vaughn. Next time I'm in Delaware, I'll buy them a drink. And then I'll send them home in a taxi, just on general principles.

(Update, 2 July, 8 pm: They've drunk the Kool-Aid. Damn.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:29 AM)
27 June 2004
Motley ecru

Aggressive people, says a British insurance company, tend to drive black cars, which, in the UK anyway, crash more often than cars of other, um, colours.

The Churchill Company's analysis shows the following, in descending order of crash likelihood:

[D]rivers who like black see themselves as rebels. Silvers are cool and aloof; greens are prone to hysterics; and yellow are idealistic lovers of novelty. People who favor blue are introspective and cautious; grey calm, sober and dedicated with tendencies to slip out of personality; red energetic and quick-thinking; pink gentle and loving; white status-seeking extroverts and cream self-contained and in control.

My car, it says right here on the sticker, is painted Mojave Beige.

Now get the hell out of my way.


(Via Interested-Participant)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:28 PM)
20 July 2004
Wow, I coulda had a V6

Bruce's thinking on engine choices:

I wanted a car with something better than a four because I assumed that it would hold up better. I tend to think that fours are pushed too hard by highway and stop and go driving.

Bruce drives something (he's not saying what) with a six-cylinder.

Longevity, of course, is the result of many factors, but there's not much doubt that a four works harder than a six when asked to perform the same tasks. My own car has a small undersquare four, the long stroke intended to produce some additional torque, and at its 6500-rpm redline, the mean piston speed is 3929 ft/min. The V6 offered as the up-option is allowed to rev to 7000 rpm, and its shorter stroke results in a mean piston speed of 3170 ft/min. In this benchmark, at least, the V6 is having to strain itself about twenty percent less and given the gearing on these cars, it's probably doing 25 mph faster. (No, I didn't do the math; Julian Bradbury did.)

Still, there weren't too many times during the past couple of weeks when I really wished I'd spent the extra two grand for the V6, even with the A/C running.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:30 AM)
A blow to the Anti-Destination League

I missed this completely, probably because almost every mile I drove in Colorado during the Tour was along a two-lane road (US 385), where it's irrelevant.

Still, it's worth mentioning, and worth suggesting to other jurisdictions:

If you are caught lagging in the left lane, you will be subject to a $35 fine, an additional $6.20 surcharge and a three-point penalty to your driving record.

Three points, of course, will do more damage to your wallet, via increased insurance premia, than $41.20 worth of fines. In my experience, the number of left-lane bandits is relatively small, but it only takes one to screw up traffic flow for miles.

(Via Baldilocks, no doubt a glorious travel companion.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:55 PM)
26 July 2004
I'm looking through you

The windshield malfunction from the Tour has now been repaired. After looking over the damage, our man at Metro Glass shrugged and said, "I can fix that."

He could.

If the light hits just right, you can see where he's filled in the crack, but it's not horrendous, and the price fifty-five bucks was right. And eventually I'll have to replace this windshield, probably about the middle of the '05 Tour, but for now, this will work just fine; the offending area, after all, is way over on the passenger side, and how often do I have passengers?

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:15 PM)
28 July 2004
Mopar for the course

From the Department of What Were They Thinking? comes this bit of news from Auburn Hills: DaimlerChrysler is pondering the creation of another nameplate to go head-to-head with Toyota's ostensibly youth-oriented Scion brand.

From a company which has actually killed off two brands in recent years Eagle and Plymouth this qualifies as bizarre. Certainly the dealerships aren't in any mood to spring for more signage changes.

But assuming that what Gen Y wants is low-priced, quirky vehicles is dangerous. Scion has low-priced and quirky in spades, yet the average Scion buyer is forty years old. Honda's Tupperware-based Element, originally pitched at post-adolescent males, sells largely to soccer moms. And Chrysler's own PT Cruiser missed its intended twentysomething market entirely.

DaimlerChrysler admittedly doesn't cover the bottom price rung very well, with only Dodge's Neon competing, but with Chrysler wanting to play in Lincoln land these days, the company's German overlords might do better by going back to Chrysler's Seventies practice of importing Asian vehicles, this time perhaps from Hyundai, and slapping implausible names on them.

As for the twentysomethings I know best, my two children, well, he drives an essentially-extinct Oldsmobile Silhouette van, and she drives a Toyota Matrix wagonlet. Between them, they've owned one Mopar product over the years: he once had a Dodge Ram pickup. I don't know what it would take to get them to put Chrysler or Dodge on their want lists, but I'm reasonably certain that they are quite immune to appeals to their age group.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:49 AM)
8 August 2004
A cute little booger

Nissan has been schlepping this teensy car around the show circuit, and it's in production for the Japanese domestic market. The Moco hews closely to the Japanese minicar spec 3.4 meters in length, 660-cc engine and will be available with optional all-wheel drive. Oh, and Nissan's not actually making it at all; it's a rebadged Suzuki MRwagon. Despite its confused parentage, it's selling well in Japan.

There's probably no market for the Moco in the US, mostly because Americans don't have much interest in cars a foot shorter than a Mini Cooper fercryingoutloud, but at least partially, I suspect, because the growing Latino submarket isn't likely to be delighted by a car whose name means "snot" in Spanish.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:50 PM)
13 August 2004
Going in circles

Getting through Tulsa is perhaps more difficult than it needs to be, and existing bypasses don't really bypass much. (Not that we can brag all that much over here in Oklahoma City.)

Hence: I-844, an idea for a 194-mile beltway around Tulsa and Tulsa County. Mile 0 is set at the presumed junction with the Turner Turnpike near Bristow.

Martin McMahon, who came up with the idea, explains:

I realize this Beltway, or anything even remotely resembling it, isn't gonna be built anytime soon, certainly not within my lifetime, but it would be useful. It would, for example provide a much more direct route for anyone from Claremore to Joplin, or from Stillwater to Lawton, wanting to see Woolaroc. For some truckers the Beltway would provide a more direct route to where they're going, greatly easing traffic congestion within Tulsa proper. And as someone who lives in Tulsa I can honestly say we need all the help we can get.

I wonder if they'd try to turn it into a toll road, in the manner of the Kilpatrick Turnpike around the northwest quadrant of Oklahoma City.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:56 AM)
22 August 2004
And we mean it, too

Sooner or later, you'll see a sign by the side of the road that says SPEED LIMIT ENFORCED BY AIRCRAFT. If you're like me, you'll look up through the sunroof, note the presence of, well, nothing, and shrug.

Not a wise idea.

(Come to think of it, I don't have a sunroof anymore, either.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:47 PM)
30 August 2004
She's gonna buy her a Mercury

You ask men if Mercury is high on their Desired Vehicles list, and even the Steve Miller fans laugh at you.

You ask women, and they shrug.

Ford, having asked both, has apparently decided that the guys aren't coming back indifferent sales of the now-defunct Marauder sedan, the one semi-sporty product in the line, would seem to bear this out and will now pitch Mercury vehicles more directly toward women 35 to 50.

This may be the last stand for the 65-year-old marque, which in recent years has seemed to exist only to give Lincoln dealers something to sell at lower price points. Ford is taking a fair-sized risk here, given the scorn with which gearheads tend to view "chick cars," but the new Mercurys are not likely to be wussmobiles: women are just as demanding as men when they buy, and their priorities aren't all that different. A lead foot is a lead foot, even if it's wearing a strappy sandal.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:23 PM)
2 September 2004
American iron

Usually a classified ad for a car causes major MEGO (Mine Eyes Glazeth Over). Then, in this week's Gazette, there was this:

1973 Buick Electra 225. 4400 pounds of Detroit steel, no plastic, no computers, no cat converters.

Originally, the "225" designation represented the car's length in inches, and the '73 was pretty close to that. This year's model was designed well before the first OPEC oil embargo in '73, so not even perfunctory attention is paid to gas mileage; its 26-gallon tank empties seemingly as fast as you can fill it. This particular sample is a four-door hardtop in metallic blue; the top is white, as is the leather interior. The one concession to presumed modernity is the air conditioning, which has been retrofitted to use R134a refrigerant.

Obviously, even at the bargain price of a buck a pound, I can't even be thinking about this behemoth. It would never fit in my garage, and it would triple the cost of my daily commute. Still, it's a serious cruisemobile, something that could never be said of my innocuous little sedan, and while '73 was well into the era of emissions controls, which tended to play hell with driveability in those days, there's something comforting about being able to pop the hood and identify every single part, something that just doesn't happen anymore, and besides... that's it, stop right there, don't say another word, dammit.

Did I mention the ashtray has never been used in those 31 years?


Permalink to this item (posted at 6:26 AM)
8 September 2004
Wheels to die for

It's not on their Web site yet, but the October issue of Automobile has a "highly subjective" list of the 100 Coolest Cars and, of course, ten that are the very antithesis of cool.

Among the favored are, as I expected, some of my favorites, including the '53 Studebaker Starliner coupe with its legendary Raymond Loewy styling (#52), the first (1963) Buick Riviera (#49), the Ferrari 275GTB (#35), the '55 Chevrolet Bel Air (#22), and Elwood Engle's '61 Lincoln Continental with suicide doors (#19). The only one I really expected to see but didn't was Virgil Exner's '57 Plymouth, arguably the best-looking car ever to emerge from Chrysler, one of which is buried under the Tulsa County Courthouse lawn.

Over in the Bowser Department are such dogs as the Yugo, the Pontiac Aztek, and the Cadillac Cimarron, a tarted-up Chevy Cavalier introduced in 1982 that well, let them tell you:

On a VH1 "Behind the Music" episode, the Cimarron would be the point where the band breaks up and everybody goes into rehab.

So that's what happened to General Motors in the 80s.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:33 AM)
15 September 2004
Where have you gone, Joe Isuzu?

Japan's oldest maker of motor vehicles they built their first car in 1916 has fallen on hard times in the US. For 2005, the model line has been cut from three trucks to one, and that one, the Ascender, is not a compelling buy, inasmuch as General Motors, which owns 12 percent of Isuzu, sells basically the same truck at Chevy, GMC, Buick and (with a heavy dose of artificial Swedener) Saab dealerships.

Still, I'm not ready to count them out yet. Isuzu still sells well outside the US, and in 1999 GM owned forty-nine percent of the company; three years later Isuzu managed to buy back most of the General's equity, and they plan to repurchase the rest and go it alone after the 2006 model year. They might even sell cars again here, something they haven't done since 1994.

As for Joe, inveterate liar that he was, I assume he's found a job in Big Media.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:41 PM)
6 October 2004
Wanted: leadfoot, size 7B

Well, they're not that specific, but Easy Street Motorsports is looking for a female driver for their ESX Subaru WRX STi on the 2005 race circuit. Salary is $40k, augmented by the usual sponsorship money, plus a full scholarship to Frank Hawley's NHRA Drag Racing School.


Must be a female in good health and possess a valid U.S. driver's license.

Experience is not required, but it can be helpful when you have to pilot over 1000 hp of all-wheel drive, ground-pounding, thunder!!

Um, yeah.

(Via Jalopnik)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:52 AM)
19 October 2004
Eine kleine Driversmusik

Satellite radio? iPod in your dashboard? Bah. Come with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, to model year 1956, when Chrysler Corporation (via CBS Laboratories) came up with an in-dash record player.

"Highway Hi-Fi," indeed. Still, if it had caught on, would we ever had had 8-track (or even 4-track) tapes?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go pop a CD-R into the dash.

(Via Jalopnik, which is sorta like what you'd get if Wonkette were obsessed with rear axle ratios instead of um, never mind.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:45 AM)
3 November 2004
I want it, I want it

As if the ordinary Chrysler 300C wasn't spiffy enough, now there's a Hurst Edition.

The obvious inspiration was the '70 Chrysler 300 Hurst, but anyone who's ever had a fondness for traditional V8-powered American iron should find something to like about this big Moparmobile.

Besides, it's got a Hemi.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:30 AM)
10 November 2004
Out of sight, out of reach

American drivers of a certain age will remember the Joan Claybrook Memorial Speedometer, inflicted on motor vehicles sold in the States around 1980: not only did it top out at a mundane 85 mph, but automakers were required to give special prominence to the national 55-mph speed limit. This was every bit as stupid as you think it was, and was eventually abandoned, as was the double-nickel itself. The thinking, and I use the term loosely, was that if the speedo only reads 85, everyone will assume that this is the maximum speed of the car and no one will drive faster than that. The far more common response, of course, was "Hmmm. Wonder what happens if I peg this baby?" The Law of Unintended Consequences at its finest.

And although this scheme didn't work worth a damn in the States, it's enjoying an inexplicable revival in usually-sensible Australia; the premier of the state of Victoria is proposing a 130-kph maximum (80 mph, more or less) for speedometers fitted to vehicles sold in Oz. What's more, he says, eventually he wants the actual top speed reduced. (Victoria, I assume, is the Australian equivalent of a Blue State.)

There's no way to predict how the Australian Transport Council will respond to this notion, but Tim Blair has a recommendation: if we must specify a top speed at all, let it be, oh, 300 kph.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:03 AM)
Hoping for a spectacular finish

What guy doesn't want this?

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:25 PM)
1 December 2004
Half the gas

Fred Alger Management, a New York-based financial-services operation, has sent a letter to the White House containing a plan which, it says, will cut gasoline consumption in half over the next ten years.

The highlight, if that's the word, of the Alger plan is a $1000 tax on any vehicle that doesn't get 30 mpg. Unlike current Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, this applies not only to new vehicles, but to vehicles already in use: my 25-mpg sedan and someone else's 12-mpg truck will each be assessed a tax of $1000. And that's for the first year: the tax goes up $500 a year thereafter.

In addition to all this gas we won't be buying, says Alger, we'll get a bump in the GDP from all the new fuel-efficient cars we'll have to buy to avoid the tax.

Something is a trifle askew here, and I think it's Alger's assumptions. In an Alger mid-November market commentary [link requires Adobe Reader], I found this paragraph:

Take Toyota, the Japanese auto giant that had been languishing until its new hybrid vehicle, the Prius, began to attract customers and attention. Now, in California alone, there is as much as a six-month waiting list for the Prius, and Toyota expects to up production to 100,000 units next year. It is no coincidence that Toyota is also seeing a surge in global demand and record profits, aided by the fact that hybrids command in the neighborhood of $4000 more than the equivalent non-hybrid vehicle. Toyota's management recognized a need early, and produced a viable, attractive, and innovative product to meet consumer needs. Now, Ford, Honda, and other rivals are scrambling to catch up.

Toyota has hardly been "languishing"; in the past few years they've scrambled past Ford to become the world's second-largest automaker. And the contribution of the Prius to Toyota's profits so far has been negligible: the first couple of model years were sold at a loss to establish the brand, and the price to dealers has not risen substantially since that time though dealers are happy to add their own markups to the factory sticker, what with that waiting list and all. Further, there is no non-hybrid Prius to compare on price, making that "neighborhood of $4000" rather illusory: Honda and Ford get about $3400 extra for their hybrids, and Ford has to pay some of that money to Toyota, some of whose technology they licensed for the Escape hybrid.

Meanwhile, the Autoextremist wonders:

Not a popular proposal for the auto companies, at least on the surface, and there are obviously naive assumptions throughout the proposal, but it does raise some interesting questions, as in, 1. Why does a proposal of this nature have to come from a financial company, instead of from people who are actively involved in the automobile business and heavily invested in its future?, and 2. Why isn't the auto industry coming up with an energy independence recommendation of its own, before someone does it for them?

Certainly "energy independence," as envisioned by Alger, is a Good Thing. But I can't help but wonder if we couldn't get most of the same results with a lot less hassle by simply increasing the gasoline tax by a buck or so.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:56 PM)
8 December 2004
Tanks for nothing

In case you thought that sport-utility vehicles were taking over the world, be advised that they're taking a break: the General Motors Oklahoma City Assembly facility, which produces seven-passenger Chevrolet TrailBlazers and its GMC and Isuzu brethren, will temporarily cut about 250 to 300 jobs next month in an effort to balance production and inventory.

The GMC Envoy XUV, produced only in Oklahoma City, is not selling well despite its sliding roof over the cargo area, a feature last seen in mid-1960s Studebaker wagons.

This is perhaps an indication that Detroit really didn't expect that truck sales might drop in the wake of two-dollar-plus gas. I'm not persuaded that the SUV boom is over, but I'm fairly sure that it's past its peak.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:04 AM)
9 December 2004
Early-morning slalom

The ramp from I-44 eastbound to I-35 southbound is a fairly sharp 90-degree curve, followed by one of Oklahoma's infamous too-short-by-half merging lanes, and since it's all elevated but not at the same height, which means one heck of a blind spot the payback for not executing the merge properly is serious.

I've tackled this ramp maybe three hundred times, and under favorable conditions (which is to say "when it's dry") it's no particular trick, at least in my car, to maintain 60-mph speed from 44 all the way around the swoop and merge seamlessly into the southbound 35 traffic flow. Unfortunately, two members of the Anti-Destination League, puttering along at 48 mph or so, picked this moment to be occupying the space I'd normally be assuming post-merge. And it wasn't like their progress, if that's the word, was being thwarted by some rolling speed bump up ahead; there was at least a 1500-foot gap in front of them.

The solution was simple enough downshift to second, spin up to 6200 rpm, and zoom-zoom into the gap but I have to admit that this is not my favorite maneuver during pre-dawn darkness.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:29 AM)
17 December 2004
I am not worthy

A most excellent robin's-egg-blue 1976 AMC Pacer, previously seen in the 1992 film Wayne's World, will be put up for auction by its current owner, the Volo Auto Museum, northwest of Chicago (and north of Aurora).

If you're looking for a MirthMobile of your very own, this one will cost you about $15,000, roughly two-thirds of which is due to reflected excellence from Wayne and Garth. And if the very thought of owning a '76 Pacer makes you hurl, I say hurl.


(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:00 PM)
19 December 2004
As a matter of fact, I do own this damn road

Congress, says the Constitution, is empowered to establish post offices and post roads. Certainly this particular clause was never intended to give government a monopoly over road-building; there are plenty of private roads to this day, some in rural areas, some right here in Oklahoma City. (Often they're designated by street signs that look like the standard OKC sign, except they have green text on a white background instead of the white-on-green you find on city streets.)

Still, it's been a while since we saw anything like this:

Taking an historic step, the Texas Transportation Commission [Thursday] selected a proposal by Cintra an international group of engineering, construction and financial firms as the best value for the state in developing the Oklahoma-to-Mexico portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC-35).

Cintra proposes to invest $6 billion in a toll road between Dallas and San Antonio by 2010, give the state $1.2 billion for additional transportation improvements between Oklahoma and Mexico, and to extend the corridor into the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Mexico.

"This is an historic change in the way major transportation assets are built and paid for in Texas," said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. "Private investment, not taxpayer dollars, will be where we look first for funding."

To address the state's need for immediate congestion relief on Interstate 35, the first phase of Cintra's proposal calls for developing $6 billion in new roadways roughly paralleling the interstate by 2010. This includes building 316 miles of new four-lane divided highway from Dallas to San Antonio. According to the proposal, pending environmental clearance and the public-involvement process, construction could begin immediately after right-of-way acquisition.

A five-year period doesn't strike me as particularly "immediate," but it would probably take TxDOT longer than that to make any meaningful improvements on I-35; the Cintra proposal bypasses I-35 entirely and creates a whole new road. In exchange for its billions of investment and maintenance expenditures, Cintra will collect tolls on this road for its first fifty years of operation. (If this sounds like a long time, well, we've been paying tolls on the Turner Turnpike for 51 years now; at least Cintra, unlike the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, is announcing a termination date.)

This isn't Cintra's first toll road in the States they're a partner in the group which is buying the Chicago Skyway but this is the first one they're building from scratch.

(Via Chris Lawrence, who advises that this is not part of the southern extension of I-69.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:49 AM)
5 January 2005
Things I never said

However much I might think I'd fancy the description, I am not, and likely never will be, hell on wheels.

Then there was this fellow named Don Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, Carvajal y Are, Conde de la Mejorada, Marquis de Portago. If anyone qualified as hell on wheels, surely it was Portago, and this is what he had said to Ken W. Purdy (Car and Driver, August 1957) about Life, The Universe, And Everything:

You know, people say that racing drivers are daredevils, who don't care whether they live or not, and you've seen stories about me and my flirting with death and all that. Nonsense, all nonsense. I want to live to be 105, and I mean to. I'm enchanted with life. But no matter how long I live, I still won't have time for all the things I want to do. I won't hear all the music I want to hear, I won't be able to read all the books I want to read. I won't have all the women I want to have. I won't be able to do a twentieth of the things I want to do. And besides just the doing, I insist on getting something out of what I do. For example, I wouldn't race unless I were sure I could be champion of the world.

He never quite got to be champion of the world, nor did he get to be 105. Teammate Edmund Nelson once said that "I know he says he'll live forever, but I say he won't live to be 30." And on the way to Brescia in the 1957 Mille Miglia, the Ferrari he was driving blew a tire, somewhere upward of 125 mph, and crashed spectacularly, killing Portago, Nelson, and nearly a dozen spectators. The Italian government, horrified, ordered an end to the annual "thousand-mile" race. Nelson was right: Portago was all of twenty-eight when the end came.

Die young, stay pretty? Not even. Portago may have done some foolhardy things, but he was no fool: he understood the risks, and he pressed on regardless. "Had he been cautious," said Purdy, "we would never have heard of him." And I, halfway to 105, wonder if anyone would ever have heard of me if I hadn't been so cautious.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:54 AM)
7 January 2005
A few more rings

I have never quite understood Saturn; as an experiment with Really Good Customer Service, it has to be considered a success Saturn customer loyalty is right up there with the high-priced brands, maybe higher but the cars have been, you should pardon the expression, rather pedestrian.

What to do? If your answer is this:

I, for one, would first get down on my knees and thank the Maker for the finest retail network in the industry. Then, I would set to work replenishing the product portfolio.

Then you're on the same page as General Motors Vice-Chairman for Product Development Bob Lutz.

Which would be this page here.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:02 PM)
13 January 2005

If you were saving up for a new Yugo ZMW, you might want to reallocate your assets: Malcolm Bricklin is otherwise occupied right this minute.

Bricklin's Visionary Vehicles has signed a deal with the Chinese automaker Chery, and expects to bring over a line of cars in 2007 priced at, he says, 30 percent below the competition.

Whether this is good news or bad news remains to be seen: Bricklin's automotive track record is spotty (oil leaks?), and Chery's current designs aren't exactly noteworthy, with the possible exception of its QQ minicar, which General Motors believes to be a ripoff of the Chinese-market Chevrolet Spark, produced by GM's Korean affiliate Daewoo.

Still, the QQ sells for less than 30,000 yuan $6000 so at least Chery knows how to build them cheap. The question is whether they can build them well enough for the North American market. Hyundai and corporate sister Kia got a big boost by a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, which Visionary Vehicles will match, but the sales didn't really take off until the survey numbers were in and buyers discovered that Hyundai was building cars that might actually hold up that long. I'm guessing that the VV/Chery combine will do better than Bricklin's Yugos, but then it would be hard not to.

And if you'd prefer your Third World vehicle be procured from a non-Communist country, Romania has a sport-utility for you.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:32 AM)
18 January 2005
The ultimate road trip

Come July, I start my fifth annual World Tour. As usual, it won't come close to circumnavigating the world, but 4500 miles in three weeks is nothing to sneer at.

Unless you're Scott and Eileen, who start their road trip in July, and they're not coming back for fifty-two weeks.

Why, you ask?

Two reasons. One, to explore the less-charted areas of America and capture what we find in words, still photography, and moving images. Two, to audition thousands of small American towns for the role of our new hometown. At the end of our trip, we'll choose one of them as the place to start a family.

Makes me want to empty out the old money-market account and go pack.

These two get on the blogroll immediately, simply because I don't want to miss any of this. And if our paths should cross well, it's too early to make any plans.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:25 PM)
22 January 2005
Access to Zoom Zoom

Mazda North American Operations and software developer Nanonation have been rolling out something called the Retail Revolution Showroom, which adds a whole lot of computer stuff to a dealership. Most of it is the expected juggle-the-options screen, but there's an actual test-drive simulator that enables potential buyers to get the feel of Mazda vehicles, or so they say, without leaving the grounds.

I'm not so sure about that you can't really learn a car's basic qualities (or quirks) in the couple of miles you get to drive it for real, let alone a few minutes working a simulator but it is something different, and Mazda, which is on the comeback trail these days, needs to continue to present itself as a more interesting alternative to the usual brands.

Mazda sold 263,882 vehicles last year in the States, up slightly from the year before, which is a decent figure but a mere drop in the overall American automotive bucket; as a fan of the marque my last two cars have been Mazdas I'm keen to see them pick up some extra sales. And some of those sales might actually be in Oklahoma: at least, Nelson Mazda in Tulsa, which has the new showroom apparatus, certainly hopes so.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:51 AM)
31 January 2005
You'll wonder where the yellow went

Six million dollars in the Cleveland budget this year is supposed to come, says Mayor Jane Campbell, from as-yet-uninstalled cameras to catch drivers running red lights.

The city would have to issue about 150 tickets a day at $150 a shot to be able to meet Campbell's goal. What's most interesting about this is that she didn't even pay lip service to "public safety"; this is a revenue measure, pure and simple, and, says Director of Finance Robert Baker, "Cities that have done this have been astounded by the amount collected."

Cleveland is budgeting for $484 million in expenditures this year. Oklahoma City, about ten percent larger, will spend $697 million this year; the fine for running a red light or a STOP sign is $172.

(Via Interested-Participant.)

(Update, 4 February, 7:40 pm: Her Honor has changed her tune slightly.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:44 PM)
3 February 2005
I'll have the king crab

This isn't on Automobile Magazine's Web site yet, and if they have any sense, they won't put it there.

Ezra Dyer and his pal Murph are doing the London-to-Rome circuit in a Lotus Elise. Budgetary limitations being what they are, their route runs from London, Texas to Rome, Georgia.

Somewhere west of Houston, the troopers appear, and Ezra muses:

The cop hands me my first speeding ticket in nine years. I console myself with the thought that my streak was broken with a worthy car, something like getting an STD from a supermodel.

I believe I speak for many of you when I say "Ewwwww...."

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:34 PM)
14 February 2005
It's just a videogame

Um, well, no, really it isn't.

JSC Speed has introduced something called the TurboXS DTEC, which takes one ordinary Nintendo Game Boy Advance (not included) and turns it into an actual automotive-diagnostic device. The various modules allow you to read turbo boost, exhaust temperature, intake air temperature, and RPMs; future modules will include detonation sensors and skidpad readings in g.

It won't read OBD II diagnostics, at least not yet, which means that there are still going to be the usual too-cheap-to-buy-a-manual knobs knocking on my mailbox asking how to pull the codes on their freaking '96 Mazdas, but you can't have everything.

(Via Kotaku.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:17 PM)
24 February 2005
The need for speed

The city has concluded that people drive too fast on the Broadway Extension and will crack down on such antisocial behavior. In a survey conducted earlier this month, hardly anyone was hugging the 60-mph speed limit, and two or three percent of drivers were doing better than 90.

Of course, going 90 mph isn't necessarily a hazard in itself; it's the people around you crawling along at 67 for whom it becomes an issue. Still, 90 mph isn't a viable speed limit for a short stretch of road, although obviously drivers are convinced that 60 is too low. The Lake Hefner Parkway is 65 for most of its length; the Broadway Extension north of 63rd, anyway ought to be at least as high.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:06 AM)
25 February 2005
Money pit, right lane, exit only

There's an old wives' tale, presumably passed on by old wives, that cars start to develop problems once they're paid off.

I don't think there's any causal relationship between making the last payment and heading for the garage; more likely, it's just that auto loans go on for so long these days.

After almost four and a half years (on a five-year note; don't ask), my car is now paid for. The warranty three years/50,000 miles ran out for chronological reasons 16 months ago, so if anything horrible was going to happen, I figure it would have happened then. It didn't. Then again, except for the midsummer World Tours, I don't drive all that much: at the 52-month mark, I've got 41,100 miles on the clock.

While I expect I will need tires and brake pads within the next year or so, maintenance on this little darb has so far been fairly cheap; everything I've had to have fixed has been windshield-related (two cracks, one bent wiper blade). There are some definite signs of wear here and there, but nothing compelling enough to make me look at it in despair and go sign away my life for another five or six years.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:32 AM)
With the Beetles

Writer Paul Schilperoord, in the Dutch magazine The Engineer, is claiming that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche's contribution to the development of the Volkswagen is greatly exaggerated, or so states this thread at AutoWeek's message board.

As early as 1928, Josef Ganz was showing off a fixed-chassis prototype with rear-wheel drive and a rear-mounted engine, which by 1931 he was calling Maikäfer "May beetle". Adolf Hitler caught a glimpse of Ganz' bug a couple of years later, decided that some sort of "people's car" would be worth doing, and assigned the development to Dr. Porsche, who then basically swiped the Ganz designs. Ganz, a Jew, had fled to Switzerland and presumably was in no position to complain.

A few KdF-Wagens dribbled out under the auspices of the Third Reich, but it wasn't until after WWII that Vee Dubs, and Porsche's own "ass-engined Nazi slot cars," in P. J. O'Rourke's immortal phrase, began to appear in quantity.

Then again, Porsche's biggest seller these days is a farging SUV, which is plenty revisionist enough for me already.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:01 PM)
4 March 2005
Applied depreciation

Generally Consumer Reports is not one's first choice for snarky commentary, the "Selling It" section on the inside back cover aside, but whoever writes the little hundred-word individual-model blurbs in the annual Auto Issue has apparently gotten his leash paid out a few yards, to generally amusing effect.

The trend started last year, with this dismissal of the Hyundai XG350:

If you want to reminisce about a brand-new Buick from the 1960s, this is it.

And this on a car they recommend, mind you. The same verbiage is back this year, the Hyundai being essentially unchanged for '05, but some other vehicles come off a lot worse. The Chevrolet Impala's "interior fit and finish is borderline offensive." On the Kia Rio, "one of the lowest-priced cars sold in the US," you should "expect to get what you pay for." And Saab's two artificially-Swedened models, the 9-2X ("peculiar crossbreeding") and 9-7X, for which they put "Saab" in scare quotes in one line, apparently really annoyed them.

Nothing here that would jolt a Car and Driver reader, to be sure. On the other hand, Consumer Reports doesn't sell advertising, so none of the aggrieved automakers have the option of cancelling their ads in response.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:03 PM)
7 March 2005
Tons of Saabs

I have now seen a print ad for the Saab 9-7X, which, as noted previously, is basically a Chevrolet TrailBlazer, more stock car than Stockholm. My prediction was this:

[T]here will be a fair number of buyers lined up at the Saab store who will have no idea that the sturdy Swedish steed before them was bred from purely American stock.

The General isn't inclined to tell them, either. From the ad:

With its clean, Scandinavian design, an available 300-hp, V8 engine and a taut, Saab-tuned sport suspension, this SUV refuses to blend in.

Unless you park it next to a Buick Rainier. (Come to think of it, why does Buick have a truck?)

Unique even in its approach to safety, the 9-7X features its ignition key between the seats to help reduce the risk of knee injury in a collision. After all, when a car company started by 16 aircraft engineers decides to design an SUV, status quo thinking doesn't stand a chance.

Of course, there's nothing remotely aircraft-like about this big rig, except for its Airbusoid mass. If this sort of thing actually catches on, we will know it is time for GM to stop all of its Saabing.

(Update, 9 March, 10:30 am: Saab CEO Peter Augustsson has resigned in the wake of a decision by GM to produce most of its European models at the Opel plant in Rüsselsheim, Germany instead of at Saab's Swedish facilities.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:52 PM)
13 March 2005
Where the beaches are not so good

John Phillips, editor at large for Car and Driver, has a couple of things in common with me: we're both in our early 50s, and we've both been to the Oklahoma Panhandle once. The difference is that Phillips drove there (with a photographer) in a European-spec three-cylinder turbo Smart ForTwo, and his observations got into the magazine's April issue (not on their Web site as of this writing). I can't tell whether he actually liked the place or not. A sample or three:

For the first time in recent memory, I was driving daily on roads that were sometimes empty to the horizon. And there's precisely no one selling grande decaf frappuccinos, plus it's as quiet as a mausoleum, if you can imagine a mausoleum with a steady 30-knot wind and a herd of polled Herefords. Throughout history, the Panhandle has been a place that would either kill you or make a man of you, especially if you were a woman.

Scary prospect. And there's this:

We headed south to Wheeless, which certainly was. "Is it free of wheels," [photographer Greg] Jarem asked, "or free of whee?" In fact, we could locate no living soul to confirm that the town was uninhabited, yet it contained one firehouse, a white clapboard Baptist church, a red limestone garage, and a graveyard. We tried to walk to the cemetery but were stymied by six inches of mud. In the schoolyard lay toys that might have been dropped 30 years prior. Wheeless appeared to have been abandoned one day at about 2 p.m. and no one could think of a reason to return. As we departed, the Smart hit a tumbleweed the size of a dishwasher. "That really cheered me up," said Jarem.

There's a picture of said tumbleweed, too. Let's hope the C/D Web site picks up on it.

That night, at the Pop-A-Top Lounge in Guymon, the Panhandle's largest town, a bartender named Wendy Ward told us, "This is the most judgmental place in the U.S. We have harsh opinions of everyone." I asked her the Panhandle's population. "Don't know, don't care," she shot back.

Um, 28,478 (US Census Bureau estimate, 1 July 2003).

But I suspect he just might have enjoyed the trip:

It took three 10-hour days to hit every berg and hamlet in the Panhandle. It was never boring. We finished in Slapout, whose eight residents live opposite the town's only business, a gas station. Two cowboys ran out to greet us, eager to lay hands on the Smart. They grinned at first, then smiled, then laughed until they were emitting wet pig snorts and their faces turned red.

And you know, if I saw one of these up close and personal, I just might giggle myself.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:59 AM)
17 March 2005
Coming and going

The Ohio House had passed an amendment to the Buckeye State's transportation budget to get rid of the front license plate, saying it was an unnecessary expense, but the Senate version of the bill, which retains the front plate, prevailed in committee, arguing that displaying a front plate served the needs of law enforcement.

Before you ask, yes, Timothy McVeigh, on the way out of Oklahoma, was busted on a plate violation, but he didn't have any plates on the car. (Oklahoma has managed just fine for sixty-one years with only rear plates.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:25 AM)
23 March 2005
Lots of luck

We've got way too much free parking, says UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup, according to this Scripps-Howard syndicated piece by Joan Lowy.

Obviously he's never been to Bricktown at sunset on Friday.

(Via Matt Rosenberg.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:14 AM)
25 March 2005
Advice to the General

In 1929, General Motors had all these car nameplates:

  • Buick
  • Cadillac
  • Chevrolet
  • La Salle
  • Marquette
  • Oakland
  • Oldsmobile
  • Pontiac
  • Viking

Four of these La Salle, Marquette, Pontiac and Viking were invented to extend their "parent" marques (Cadillac, Buick, Oakland and Oldsmobile respectively) during the "Roaring" Twenties, in keeping with Alfred P. Sloan's decree to offer "a car for every purse and purpose." The Depression killed off Marquette and Viking within two years; Pontiac, outselling Oakland, survived its parent, and La Salle held out through 1940. (Oldsmobile, the oldest of the bunch, made it to 2004 before its, um, induction tube was removed.)

Of course, when you have 60 or 70 percent of the market, you can do stuff like this. When you're down to 28 or so, you can't, which is why Vice Chairman Bob Lutz has hinted that one of the surviving GM marques will be axed. At Wizbang, Paul thinks it's going to be Buick or Pontiac, and offers reasonable suggestions to jump-start Buick, hinting that Pontiac is expendable.

If you ask me, it is. Apart from the slow-selling GTO, itself a repackaged Holden from Australia, GM's ostensible "excitement" division has nothing all that exciting, at least until Lutz's baby, the Solstice roadster, shows up and when it does, it will have a Saturn sibling, called Sky. Dammit, guys, you can't go replicating cars just so Dealer Y doesn't whine about something Dealer X gets to sell.

And while you're at it, sell off your last few shares of Isuzu. They don't like you anyway and would rather be on their own. (So would Saab, probably, but they can't afford to leave.)

How I envision a Pontiac-less GM:

Chevrolet: Back to being a budget brand, with two exceptions: a minivan (GM should have only one minivan, and it should be a Chevy) and the Corvette. The trucks can stay.

Buick: Good old American ostentation, aimed at the lower-to-middle segments of the Lexus line. Think Sixties Riviera.

Cadillac: Actually making noises like they want to be the Standard of the World again. Let them. With Mercedes-Benz screwing up these days, now's the time.

GMC: Superfluous, especially if gas prices go through the roof and truck sales go into a tailspin. Besides, you're not fooling anyone with these rebadged Chevys.

Saturn: Home for the Consciously Weird cars. In a Pontiac-free world, the Solstice/Sky and the Vibe (the Toyota Matrix spinoff) should be able to find solace at Saturn. (Forget the Aztek. Please. And if we're going to keep the Ozified GTO, we should turn it into a Buick.)

Hummer: People who buy Saturns and such hate this brand, which justifies its continuance: all your marketing research is done for you.

I'm sure there's a place where Daewoo, Saab, Subaru and Suzuki fit in, but right now, except for Saab, they're not causing problems.

(Update, 11 am: GM marketroid Mark LaNeve says Lutz notwithstanding, no brands are destined for the chopping block.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:29 AM)
4 April 2005
You are what you drive

Politically, anyway, reports John Tierney in The New York Times:

[B]uyers of American cars tend to be Republican except, for some reason, those who buy Pontiacs, who tend to be Democrats. Foreign-brand compact cars are usually bought by Democrats but not Mini Coopers, which are bought by almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. And Volvos may not actually represent quite what you think.

In this latter case, think Subaru, says Mickey Kaus:

Subaru is the new Volvo that is, it is what Volvos used to be: trusty, rugged, inexpensive, unpretentious, performs well, maybe a bit ugly. You don't buy it because you want to show you have money; you buy it because you have college-professor values.

SUVs split where you might think: big rock-crushers go to the GOP, cute utes are bought by Democrats. Then again, Democrats tend to prefer smaller vehicles anyway:

Besides having fewer children, Democrats tend to be younger, less affluent and more likely to live in cities where small cars are easier to park.

None of this does anything to pin me down: I drive a Japanese-branded car from a marque controlled from Detroit that was built by a UAW crew in Michigan.

And if you were wondering about DaimlerChrysler's Smart cars, which presumably would come with their own stereotypes, well, forget them: DCX will not be importing them any time soon.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:46 PM)
8 April 2005
The Rick strikes back

Captain Ed comments on General Motors' decision to stop advertising in the Los Angeles Times:

The final straw appears to have been a column specifically regarding General Motors and its marketing strategy about its brand management. Dan Neil called for the GM board to get rid of Rick Wagoner, the chairman and CEO. Needless to say, that didn't make Wagoner a fan of the LAT, but it's doubtful that a single column by Dan Neil, of all people would cause GM to stop advertising in the only newspaper available throughout the entirety of the greater Los Angeles area. Instead, it seems as though Neil's column probably underscored the complaints that GM had received from its customers regarding the poor performance of the Los Angeles Times.

I'd like to believe the Captain here, inasmuch as the Times' malingering is amply documented, but I'm inclined to think it is a knee-jerk reaction by the Fourteenth Floor. There is plenty of precedent for it: for instance, this year Car and Driver reprinted a particularly nasty review (from February 1968, I think) of an Opel Kadett Wagon, which their unnamed-at-the-time critic described as "a never-ending stream of the third-rate and the underdone, a rolling potpourri of mediocrity." When it first appeared, General Motors responded by canceling its ads, not only in C/D, but in every magazine owned by its parent company, and for every product, automotive or otherwise. (At that time GM, for some inscrutable reason, owned Frigidaire.)

This was, of course, well before the Rick Wagoner era, but if any American corporation believes in sticking to the tried and true, it's General Motors.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:45 PM)
11 April 2005
Ford has a bitter idea

The House that Henry Built has shaved $900 million from its earnings estimate for the year, citing rising costs, including worker health-care costs, and slumping sales.

And there just may be a reason for the latter:

I noticed this evening that I just rolled over 60,000 miles in my 2002 F-150, and I'd love nothing more than to go buy a new one. But I'll be damned if I'm going to pay the exorbitant price they want for a newish copy of the same model 3 years later. There ain't nothing on it worth $10,000 more. I don't need no damn DVD player, side-impact airbags, GPS navigation system, or 36" spinner rims on a damn pickup. They started adding geegaws for urban yoots, hausfraus, and dashing young bankers from Upper Booho, and completely forgot about the dude who has to haul things around on occasion.

And dealers don't stock the strippers except as occasional traffic-builders.

It doesn't help, either, that the newest F150 has put on a lot of extra poundage, not all from bling: it's mostly due to the new frame design, which is substantially more resistant to flexing and bending, at a cost of about 600 lb and don't even ask how much gasoline. At least the stiffer structure benefits the dude who has to haul things around on occasion.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:14 AM)
13 April 2005
Hardware lust

Cadillac's STS is a pretty nice big boat, as big boats go, but the STS SAE 100, a one-off for the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, integrates some spiffy new toys, a fair number of which should drift down to regular production lines sooner or later.

Perhaps the most frivolous, until you think about it, is the disappearance of the gas cap. Push a dashboard button and an electronic gizmo spins open the spout; it shuts itself once you've filled up and removed the nozzle. Anyone who's ever cursed himself for losing a gas cap, or who's failed to count the clicks and wound up with a glaring Malfunction Indicator Light, should appreciate this. (I qualify on the former, once, or was it twice?)

An oil-condition sensor reports to the engine computer, and thence to the dash, the level of dino juice and how long you have left before it bakes into a nasty sludge, which should serve as a nice reality check to those folks who get the oil changed every 3 years or 36,000 miles, whether it needs it or not.

The nav system is 3D, and displays actual satellite photos; there's a reasonable chance that the road ahead will look something like the screen.

With neat stuff like this, you'd think the powertrain would be something of an afterthought, but the General has bestowed a supercharged LS2 mill on this Caddy, with 505 ponies from its six liters of displacement, and a six-speed manumatic to keep them in line.

For the time being, I will keep telling myself that this sort of thing won't fit in my garage.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:48 PM)
16 April 2005
Deuced coupes

I'm westbound from what used to be the Classen Circle, and out of four cars in the left-turn lane, three of them are '32 Fords with paint deeper than the Marianas Trench.

Which can mean only one of one thing: it's a National Street Rod Association event, specifically the Southwest Street Rod Nationals, this weekend in the Okay City. And registration was at the Courtyard by Marriott, just west of the ex-Circle.

The rodders are invariably well-behaved, say local officials, but locals apparently use the arrival of the classic cars to engage in such antisocial activities as "cruising" and street racing.

What makes the street racing particularly heinous is that it's along Meridian between Reno and SW 29th, an extremely busy stretch of road. The police are increasing their presence in the area, just in case.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:11 AM)
17 April 2005
Smile, you're on Traffic Camera

Delaware has installed a couple of those red-light cameras, with more to come, and Fritz Schranck says Delaware's implementation is more defensible than those in some other states:

[T]he yellow phase signal timing ... by law cannot be shorter than what is set by the Department's Traffic Section, using the Delaware edition of the Uniform Manual on Traffic Control Devices.

Which means they can't, or at least they say they won't, speed up the yellow-to-red transition to maximize revenues.

I still have some qualms about this sort of thing, but at least Delaware seems intent on using the cameras as an actual safety measure instead of as a cash cow, and in what strikes me as a spiffy enhancement, they'll show you the actual footage of your violation online, which may be sufficiently discouraging to save you the $30 or so it will cost to appeal the $75 ticket and lose.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:09 PM)
19 April 2005
How broke is GM?

First-quarter net loss for the largest American automaker was $1.1 billion, but how much is that really?

This much:

The wealthy Arab emirate of Dubai could bail out GM in a single bank transfer. Or, if every Catholic or every follower of Islam in the world contributed just ONE dollar to GM, this American icon would be in the clear. Perhaps they could work out a cars-for-debt scheme.

Just about every scheme I've had for getting cars involved debt.

It doesn't help that the General had to pay Fiat $2 billion just to go away.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:20 PM)
23 April 2005
Conspicuous non-consumption

Cost-vs.-benefit ratio, from Undercaffeinated:

Honda Accord LX V-6 - $23,950; average MPG - 25

Honda Accord Hybrid V6 - $30,140; average MPG - 33

If you put 15,000 miles on your car a year, and gas costs about $2 a gallon, the hybrid saves you $300/yr.

It would take over 20 years to make the difference back.

Which is true, though there are other considerations: the Accord Hybrid does have some standard features which are optional on the LX, which narrows the price difference, and unlike Honda's implementation on the Civic, the Accord Hybrid actually offers a performance improvement.

But the numbers speak for themselves, which is why I think the ultimate beneficiary of hybrids will be turn the Irony knob up to at least 9 sport-utility vehicles: pushing 12 mpg up to 20 is a lot more of an improvement to one's pocketbook than pushing 25 up to 33. (Over 600 miles, this theoretical hybrid SUV saves 20 gallons of gas; the Accord saves a little less than six.)

Still, if your primary need is to feel clean and green, there's no substitute for the Toyota Prius, which screams "I CARE!" at every gas station it passes, and whose factory FM radio has never been tuned away from NPR.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:20 AM)
24 April 2005
Hydroplane and fancy

Thoughts on driving in the rain, from Syaffolee:

Something about driving in the rain raises my hackles. More people than usual seem to have a death wish on the road, driving fast and reckless. They tailgate, even when I reach five miles over the speed limit. The slick grayness and the churning clouds overhead is this what dares people to tread that line between here and oblivion? Is it because unlike their dull jobs and boring home lives, this is the only moment that they feel alive?

For myself, I offer the following explanation: It's dangerous out there, what with wet roads, which reduce your traction, and idiot drivers, which reduce your patience. So I tend to speed up, if only to reduce the time I have to spend in this hazardous environment.

On the other hand, I have enough sense not to overdrive either my tires or my vision. If it's coming down so hard that I can't see two feet in front of my car, I'm off to the shoulder, and there I will sit.

And from there, I can watch the curious beauty of it all:

I must admit there's a certain beauty about rainy traffic. A car is not just a car but a mechanical mermaid rising out of a silver mist as the hind wheels kick up water. The roads are dark things curling intimately around dripping hills and buildings and budding trees. Perhaps the other drivers feel this too and subconsciously desire that morbid thought of running aground, skin upon cold wet pavement.

Less the wet stuff, this is about how I feel about driving at night. Unfortunately, I don't see as well as I'd like.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:11 PM)
27 April 2005
He had a better idea

Alexander Trotman, the last man not named Ford to serve as chairman of Ford, has died in England at seventy-one.

Trotman assumed the top spot in 1993 and moved to implement a plan to integrate Ford's North American and European operations, ultimately saving the company $5 billion. He retired at the end of 1998, and his heir apparent, Jac Nasser, was given only the CEO title, with William Clay Ford Jr. assuming the chairmanship.

The one thing I remember most vividly about Alex Trotman was his appearance on Michael Moore's TV Nation series, in which Moore, as part of his ongoing CEO Corporate Challenge, dared Trotman to change the oil in a Ford truck on camera. Trotman, never one to fear getting his hands dirty, did exactly that.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:30 AM)
29 April 2005
A Great Truth discovered

Saint Paul explains:

Reading the ticket, the consequences for pleading GUILTY and WAIVING MY RIGHTS to a trial (do they really have to phrase everything is such Constitutionally apocalyptic terms?), is an ice cold 120 bones for going 11-14 MPH over the posted limit. Interesting to note, the penalty for 15-20 MPH in excess is $130. A mere 8% increase in penalty for a 31% increase in speed. Kids, the broader lessoned learned from this is to never travel 76 MPH in a 65 zone when 85 will do.

This wisdom, applied to Oklahoma City:

speeding up to 10 mph over limit 161.00
speeding 11-19 mph over limit 192.00
speeding 20 mph over limit 202.00

Assuming a 65-mph speed limit (say, the Lake Hefner Parkway), you have to be doing at least 77.5 to break even, and on Saturday afternoon, you probably are.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:23 PM)
5 May 2005
Striking fear into the Fourteenth Floor

Kirk Kerkorian, last seen in Detroit complaining about the Daimler-Benz/Chrysler merger and how it had cost him mucho dollars, is now seeking to buy up to 9 percent of GM.

What are the chances that Kerkorian will sit back and clip coupons? Next to nil. I mean, this is the man who bought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1969, sold it in 1986 (to Ted Turner), bought it back before the year was out, sold it again in 1990, bought it back once more in 1996, and finally unloaded it on Sony this year. Obviously GM is far larger than MGM ever was, but Kerkorian is not at all cowed by the General's sheer size. Rick Wagoner, GM chairman, must be wondering what he did to deserve this.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:31 AM)
6 May 2005
Meanwhile, we get the Lincoln Zephyr

I don't know which of these is the most upsetting:

  1. The fact that Ford of Australia has come up with a reincarnation of the Ranchero;

  2. The fact that it's called the F6 Tornado, making light of the very Fujita scale that controls our springs and falls here in the Wind Zone;

  3. The fact that they're not going to bring any of them over here.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:00 PM)
12 May 2005
Back to the Forward Look

Lileks in Camryland:

Today we went through many web pages looking at many cars, and it was depressing; most mid-priced sedans were designed by graduates of the International Institute of Boring Your Ass Off, and have the same dull front and the same dull back and the same dull middle. I repeat my earlier contention: bring back a car that would have looked at home in 1957 and they would sell a kajillion units. Something that leaned into the wind, had boobie headlights and forty-nine tons of chrome, two colors, poke-your-eye-out fins and a hood ornament in the shape of a rocket or a nuclear weapon. But no: we get the same old same old, over and over.

The closest thing we have to an iconic American automobile these days is the Chrysler 300, a massive, roaring rear-wheel-drive sled that, in its 300C guise, carries a big honking Hemi V8. It's perfect for 1957: why, they actually had a 300C then, a massive, roaring rear-wheel-drive sled that carried a big honking Hemi V8. The 21st-century C, alas, has been shorn of its fins, but it's selling kajillions of units: it's one of the few Detroit nontrucks moving without rebates.

I can't imagine Lileks being bored by one of these. On the other hand, I can't imagine him peeling off thirty-odd large for one of them either.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:31 AM)
17 May 2005
O horrible Hummer, evil Expedition

The headline here is instructive:

Police search for SUV driver after accident hurts 2 in city

Not just any driver, but an "SUV driver." The story:

Police are searching for the driver of a sport utility vehicle who walked away from a collision that seriously injured a taxicab driver and a passenger.

The SUV apparently crossed the centerline about 9 a.m. Saturday, colliding head-on with a taxicab in the 7800 block of S Western Avenue, Sgt. Gary Knight said. The names of both drivers and the passenger in the taxi were not released.

Knight said the driver and passenger in the taxi were taken to an area hospital in critical condition. The other driver fled the scene on foot, he said.

Wouldn't he be just as culpable had he been in a sedan?

The ongoing demonization of the sport-utility vehicle continues, as Kathleen Parker observes:

I don't expect to clip many news stories that begin: "Hybrid runs down elderly, blind woman."

(Incidentally, this very same Kathleen Parker column was carried in the Sunday Oklahoman; I'm wondering if maybe the staff doesn't read their own paper.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:12 AM)
24 May 2005
Herbicide: fully loaded

ConocoPhillips has been running a billboard (I saw it on I-44 eastbound just west of I-35) with the catchy phrase EXFOLIATE YOUR PISTONS.

I have to assume that this isn't exactly what they had in mind.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:08 PM)
29 May 2005
Buckle up or else

Midwest City police set up a checkpoint on NE 10th between Sooner and Air Depot yesterday, looking for those hardened criminals who don't fasten their seat belts. About six hundred vehicles were pulled over, and 175 tickets were written, mostly for this heinous offense, but sixteen were busted for driving with suspended licenses (real smart, guys) and one actual DWI was picked up. Eleven cars were impounded in the process.

My compliance with the seat-belt law is, and has been for some time, 100 percent. But I am not persuaded that failure to comply with a safety measure is something that ought to be considered an actual crime; people who fall asleep behind the wheel represent a far greater threat to traffic safety, and you don't see any checkpoints looking for them.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:57 PM)
5 June 2005
Road kill blues

The Chinese automotive market is now the world's third largest, ahead of Germany and closing in on Japan. China, however, is not any kind of driver's paradise, and Ian Hamet turned conjured up this paragraph in The Misanthrope's Guide to Shanghai which is even more unsettling:

The average Chinese driver has less than five years' experience behind the wheel. One might infer this to mean that the average Chinese driver is, psychologically, a cocky teenager or early twenty-something with a chip on his shoulder, something to prove, and a residual hatred of daddy and all his stupid "rules" and "regulations". Such an inference, however, is hopelessly pollyannish and naive.

I was just about ready to snicker at this when I caught this in The Economist:

Acquiring a driving licence is not difficult. Although a learner has to undergo 70 hours of training over two months, it is hard to fail the test. Ill-paid examiners are readily bribable, with the instructors acting as middlemen and taking their own cut. Many cars on city streets display notices saying "New driver, please look after me". The plea is in vain. The death rate on China's roads is the highest in the world: 680 die and 45,000 are injured every day, according to the World Health Organisation, compared with around 115 deaths a day in far more motorised America.

Suddenly I don't feel so apprehensive about driving in Massachusetts (!) this summer.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:06 AM)
9 June 2005
Right in the lug nuts

Jalopnik reports that Vivid Entertainment, hitherto on my personal radar only as a purveyor of triple- or fourple-X videos, is entering the aftermarket automotive-wheel business.

Fortunately, they've already used the obligatory rim-job joke. And frankly, I can't see myself calling up these guys and asking for 18 inches minimum.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:23 PM)
11 June 2005
The Everclearmobile

While Saab continues to throw rebadged Subarus and Chevrolets at its US buyers, it's building a 9-5 BioPower model for the Swedish market that runs on gasoline, on ethanol, or anything in between.

The 2.0-liter turbo four is pretty standard Saab fare; what makes it different is the revised fittings (heavy doses of ethanol play hell with a car's fuel system, proving that cars really do reflect their drivers) and the revised engine-control software to adjust for whatever is coming through the fuel line.

Conventional wisdom holds that ethanol is less desirable as a motor fuel because of its lower energy density; to get the same performance, you'll end up with fewer miles per gallon. The Saab, however, tunes itself to get maximum value out of grain alcohol: while the engine produces a respectable 148 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque on gasoline, feeding it a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, which costs about 25 percent less than straight gasoline in Sweden, yields 180 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, with about the same mileage. (Performance figures from Automobile Magazine, July '05.)

American automakers have turned loose a few fleet cars over the years that run on this same E85 mix, but refueling stations have been few and far between in the Midwest and virtually nonexistent anywhere else. (Gasohol, which is more common, and which I sampled in western Minnesota last year, runs about 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol.) Given the fact that Saab is part of the GM organization in fact, GM's Brazilian outpost, used to ethanol-based fuels by now, consulted on the Saab BioPower project it's theoretically possible that this engine, or even this particular model, could end up Stateside, though there'd have to be a lot of them to justify opening up a bunch more E85 pumps. (Yes, it does run on ordinary gasoline, but someone paying $35k for a Saab is, I suspect, not going to tolerate the performance hit.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:30 AM)
12 June 2005

While pondering for the nth time my chronic datelessness, I happened upon the greatest personal ad of all time, and it wasn't even a personal. Technically, it was a help-wanted ad, but ... well, read it yourself. The headline was We Need a Girl!

Not just any girl. Not the usual Queen of the Cranberry Festival, but the ONE. A girl you'd climb the fence to get a close-up of. We mean a GIRL! What she must be or have is:

Personality, charm, couth, background, poise, education (why not?), chic, allure, a keen interest in cars and racing, pizazz, duende, vigor, enthusiasm, elegance, blond, brown, white, red (maybe freckles why not? we've never had one with freckles) or black hair; she must be loyal, able to talk to the boys in the pits as well as business executives, trustworthy, valiant, emotionally stable, kind, worthy (worthy?), polite, good to her mother, patriotic, single (it's less complicated that way when you're in Florida one day and California the next), compassionate, radiant, serene, sensible (sort of), stalwart, tactful, natural, have a desire to travel, a sense of humor, good health, warmth, personality (we'll say it again), sensitivity, a jet-set figure and sound teeth. The girl selected will become:

Miss Hurst Golden Shifter

She'll be the No. 1 girl in performance circles. She'll appear at all the major racing events. She'll act as hostess at Hurst exhibits and receptions and never, never be bored. It's a full-time job with quite a nice salary.

God knows I could use a little duende around here.

Oh, this ad ran in auto magazines in early 1966, and this is the person selected by Hurst. She'd be about 62 today, and presumably would still meet most of these qualifications easily.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:01 AM)
14 June 2005
Wired for safety

A cable barrier down the middle of Interstate 35 near Purcell will be installed this summer as a test.

This is not the same product that is being used on the Lake Hefner Parkway in Oklahoma City, made by Brifen; it's a new product from Dallas-based Cass, which would like to get into the highway-barrier market and is providing free wire and installation for the test. The Cass system uses three intertwined strands, versus four for the Brifen.

A third firm, Safe Fence, has a test barrier in the median near the I-35 Goldsby exit.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
3 July 2005
Big Brother as back-seat driver

This can't possibly be good:

[R]esearchers recruited 20 volunteers to drive specially modified Skoda Fabias.

Each car was fitted with a black box containing a digital road map showing the speed limits on every road in the city.

A satellite positioning system told the car where it was on the map and alerted the driver, via a digital display on the dashboard, each time he entered a zone with a new speed limit.

If the driver attempted to exceed the limit, a signal was sent to the accelerator or brake pedal to intervene.

"If the driver is demanding something greater than the speed limit, that demand is ignored," said Oliver Carsten, the research leader and professor of transport safety at Leeds University. "In a 30mph zone the car will basically not accelerate above 30mph."

The justification, of course, is that it will save lives. Of course, they could save even more lives by forbidding cars altogether, but that's at least a few months away.

At least someone objects. Jeremy Clarkson, writer for the Sunday Times and cohost of the BBC's Top Gear series, issued the following complaint:

If you put speed limiters on cars so that they can only go to a certain limit you end up with terrible bunching which actually causes more accidents. Tony Blair is not going to tell me how fast to go.

The Department for Transport said there were no plans to make the devices mandatory:

It will be for the industry to take forward the technology in response to consumer demand.

Do you know anyone who would actually demand one of these things?

Aside to Vince Orza, who suggested in the Oklahoma Gazette a couple of weeks ago that PikePass should be revised to trap speeders on Oklahoma toll roads: If you had any notions of running for governor again, you just blew 'em.

(With thanks to TheNewspaper.com.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:42 AM)
23 July 2005
Stinking badges

Robert Farago at The Truth About Cars has been running a series called GM Death Watch, and one recurring theme throughout has been the bloated number of brand names the General is trying to support. Oldsmobile, of course, is gone, and Buick and Pontiac are being stripped back to niche levels neither will offer a full top-to-bottom line of vehicles but, says Farago, this isn't enough:

[T]here is no way on God's green earth that GM can make eight count 'em: eight carmaking divisions fire on all cylinders all at the same time. Even if one or two members of GM's portfolio suddenly become wildly successful a fair proposition given the law of averages the others will take the resources generated and piss them away. There will always be a crisis somewhere in The General's ranks. It's a no-win situation.

Need proof? Look overseas. GM's European operations posted a $37m profit. It's not great, but a profit beats a loss every time. So why is GM Europe floating while its US parent flounders? European labor costs are worse than America's, and governmental taxation and regulation is on the far side of burdensome. But GM Europe doesn't sell eight different brands. Vauxhall [UK] is a single strong brand with a coherent message and worthy products. Ditto Opel on the Continent. These companies have focus.

There is no question that GM needs, for instance, the upcoming Solstice. But it's a waste of time and effort to sell it as a Pontiac, in light of the fact that they're also going to try to move a version of it at Saturn stores. Assuming there's a market for, say, a quarter-million of these little darbs per year, it makes no financial sense to build 150,000 with one badge and 100,000 with a different badge unless they're absolutely identical otherwise (cf. Dodge/Plymouth Neon); the money it takes to differentiate one from the other cuts severely into the take.

Not that Ford is doing so hot either, but Ford only has to support three domestic brands, and while Mercury is otherwise hard to justify, I suspect not many dealers could survive on Lincoln alone, especially since Lincoln has ceded the top of the domestic market to Cadillac.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
25 July 2005
So get specific already

In one of my infamous Vents, I made reference to a "$90k ... automotive toy," which prompted Mike to pick one of his own and perhaps suggest between the lines that I ought to do the same.


The stipulation being that you must use the vehicle for at least five years, and you forfeit any balance of the $90K not used to purchase the car.

Fair enough.

Let's contemplate, say, a Mercedes-Benz CLS500, base price $64,900. Add the following gewgaws:

  • 321 AMG Sport Package $4,950
  • 326 Premium Package $3,650
  • 219 Distronic Active Cruise Control $3,130
  • 317 Comfort Package $1,500
  • 530 DVD COMAND Navigation $1,240
  • 319 Lighting Package (w/cornering fog lights) $1,220
  • 022 Sirius Satellite Radio $699
  • 819 6-Disc CD Changer $430
  • R66 Mercedes Extended Run Flat Tires $200

Add $775 destination charge and $1300 Federal gas-guzzler tax and we're looking, before tag, title and whatever, at $83,994.

I might also point out that $17,019, the total price of the optional equipment on this particular Benz, exceeds the price I paid for my current car, which is, um, five years old.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:24 PM)
4 August 2005
Valero comes to town

I'd seen a few Valero stations during this year's World Tour even filled up at one, in central Connecticut but I really wasn't expecting to find one at NE 63rd and Kelley today.

Turns out Valero is converting all the Diamond Shamrock stations:

Valero will retire the approximately 30-year-old Diamond Shamrock brand, and when the conversion is complete, the Valero brand image will be featured on 2,900 U.S. retail (company-operated) and branded wholesale sites. Putting Valero signs up at its stations stretching from South Dakota to South Texas and from Arizona to Arkansas will give the company a national brand presence for the first time.

Valero had purchased Ultramar Diamond Shamrock Corporation back in 2001 for about $4 billion, but this is the first step I've seen toward rebranding. Their acquisition of Premcor this spring gave Valero the largest group of refineries in the nation, surpassing even ExxonMobil, so I rather expect they won't be running short of gasoline any time soon.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:33 PM)
11 August 2005
Go away, boy, you bother me

Lynn's son goes looking for CNG-powered vehicles and comes away empty-handed:

He asked one salesman about natural gas powered cars and, after acting as if he had asked for a car that runs on fairy dust, the salesmen went to talk to his manager. My son surreptitiously followed him and evesdropped on the conversation. The manager told the salesman, "We could get him one but it would be a big hassle. Just tell him there's a long waiting list."

We don't have a lot of vehicles that run on natural gas in this country, but a couple of popular models have CNG variants, and I've got to believe that if there were much of a waiting list, there'd be a lot more such on the drawing boards.

And at least CNG refueling stations are relatively easy to find, which is more than you can say for fairy dust.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:11 AM)
18 August 2005
And it comes out here

I have never been particularly fond of the "spinner"-style wheels that show up on automobiles now and then; some states have attempted to ban them based on safety considerations, but as a practical matter, their only real disadvantage, apart from wallet-lightening effects, is the addition of unsprung weight in an area where you don't need it. (The whole idea of alloy wheels, as opposed to steel wheels with covers, is to reduce the amount of mass down there.)

On the other hand, wheel covers with spinners have a distinct advantage: when one comes flying off the wheel at 70 mph, as happened to a Toyota pickup this morning on I-44, it has enough torque to get it across three lanes of traffic at incredibly high speed before it finally lands on the shoulder. An ordinary, stationary Pep Boys special would have been pounded to death by oncoming trucks before it ever got past the second lane.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:18 AM)
21 August 2005
Assault with battery

The analysis from Garfield Ridge:

The War? Yup, you guessed it a rightwing plot. But it's not a plot to raise oil revenues it's a plot to sell more hybrid cars.

See, the Bush Family made a deal with the Grays: in return for letting the Slender Ones Of Infinite Power mutilate all the cows they can handle, Republicans get alien weapons technology in return. But before they can use this alien technology for its intended purpose to vaporize small brown children they naturally have to test it, to see if it works. Hence, they're teaming up with Big Business in order to put this technology into hybrid vehicles, where one day soon all the environmental liberals driving them will be instantly vaporized, killing two birds with one stone: finally proving the weapons work, and incinerating Ed Begley, Jr.

And who among us hasn't wanted to see Ed Begley, Jr. incinerated? Be honest now.

Considering that the back half of a hybrid is in essence a self-contained toxic waste dump, a fact which has largely escaped their clean-and-green cheerleaders in the media well, after a while you start to wonder.

(Courtesy of Rita.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:53 AM)
22 August 2005
Kicking Aston

I have never driven any Aston Martins (Astons Martin?); in fact, my exposure to upper-crust Britmobiles is limited to a few minutes in various Jaguars and having once leaned up against a Bentley. This is not to say that I've never actually coveted one of them, of course, but somehow an Aston doesn't seem to fit into the streetscape around here: it's impossible to imagine James Bond on the Lake Hefner Parkway.

They probably don't blend into Midland very well, either, but this won't stop Eric Siegmund's blatant Aston lust any more than it would mine. On the other hand, for the price of the Aston, I could buy two of these and still have enough left to fill up the tank a couple of times.

And, well, there's this: Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane once walked into an Aston boutique in California and peeled off enough cash to drive away in a DB6. Unhappy, or bored, with the blue paint job from Newport Pagnell, she eventually got Salvador Dali (!) to repaint it.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:46 AM)
You, too, can save gas

With this handy device from DETGEP Industries, last seen on eBay for not much more than a tankful.

If you buy this, let me know how well it works out for you.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:36 PM)
24 August 2005
Those new fuel-economy standards

Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta says that the Bush administration's proposed new fuel-economy standards will ultimately save 10 billion gallons of gasoline. You'll forgive me if I, with an eye toward Mineta's other billion-dollar baby, the Transportation Security Agency, break into guffaws.

Trucks outsell cars these days, so the new standards focus on trucks. Over the next six years, the smallest SUVs, your RAV4 and your CR-V and your PT Cruiser, which isn't an SUV at all, but since the rear seats come out, it's legally a truck, unless it's a convertible, in which the rear seats don't come out, and therefore it's a car but you get the idea. Multiplying the number of light-truck categories by six means thirty-six times the amount of finagling that will be going on to meet the letter of the law while snickering at its spirit.

The environmental crowd is already complaining that the new standards won't actually save that much fuel, and I'm inclined to believe them. Unless I buy a new ride and believe me, after five months of not having a car payment, I'm not anxious to get one again they won't affect me in the slightest. Mineta points to the 28.4-mpg goal for the smallest truck-like vehicles and notes that it's way beyond the 19-mpg standard for current trucks; I suggest that if you're getting a mere 19 mpg from, say, a RAV4, you're probably pounding on the dealership's door demanding that they buy back this citrus-scented little so-and-so. And the current government estimate on a RAV4 with 4WD is 22 city, 27 highway; pushing this to 28.4 combined would cut fuel consumption by about 15 percent. That's not inconsiderable, but it may not be enough to get someone to buy a new RAV4 come 2011, and it's certainly not enough to thrill the Sierra Club in the interim.

On the other hand, this is a good argument for Oklahoma State Question 723 (I've already made a bad one); pushing the price even higher is, I reckon, a pretty good motivator when it comes to saving fuel.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:49 PM)
25 August 2005
Sorry, we're out of that grade

Hawaii, where gas starts at expensive and goes up from there, is imposing price controls at the wholesale level. A new state law enables the Public Utilities Commission in Honolulu to set a maximum wholesale price, which initially will be a shade under $2.16 a gallon. Add taxes (which are huge) and retail markup (which isn't), and islanders will presumably be looking at $2.86 at the pump.

Whether they'll actually get to pump anything at $2.86 remains to be seen. When it comes to killing the supply of a commodity, there are few actions quite as efficient as the imposition of price controls, as the Governor is about to learn:

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle said she's poised to repeal the gas cap if it somehow ends up costing motorists more. The governor said she would be checking gas price points to see if there are any gas shortages before she makes up her mind about repealing it.

I give it six weeks.

(Via Fark)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
1 September 2005
Believing the guesstimates

Consumer Reports (October) is in a snit about fuel economy, specifically about the government-mandated mpg numbers that appear on the window sticker of new cars. According to CR, 90 percent of vehicles they tested failed to deliver the numbers on the sticker.

One reasonable complaint is that the EPA's test procedure, adopted in the 1970s, hasn't been updated to reflect changing driving conditions: combined fuel-economy ratings are still calculated on a 55-percent city, 45-percent highway mix, which is not always achievable in today's heavier traffic.

On the other hand, a couple pages into the story, they give away the game:

The mpg inflation has allowed automakers to trade fuel economy for performance features that draw buyers. Between 1987 and 2005, car and light-truck manufacturers slashed 0-60 acceleration times by 24 percent and bulked up average vehicle weight by 27 percent. Consequently, these vehicles got 1.1 fewer miles per gallon than they did in 1987.

"Draw buyers"? How dare they.

And if I got 24 percent faster from 0-60 in a car that weighed 27 percent more and it cost me only 1.1 mpg, I'd be delighted.

It gets better:

Automakers have lobbied against tougher standards, saying that higher mpg is technologically difficult to achieve and that they're making vehicles the public wants. If consumer demand were not a consideration, light trucks could be getting 28 mpg and cars, 38, says John German, manager of Honda's environmental and energy analysis. "The role of government is to create mandates or incentives so some of the ongoing engine-technology efficiency gains go to fuel economy and not just more horsepower."

Again with those damned customers.

Elsewhere in this issue, they seemed impressed with their Corvette, which returned "a respectable" 21 mpg. (EPA numbers are 18 city/28 highway with the 6-speed stick; they recorded 14/31.)

Two things:

  1. When you can get 21 mpg out of four hundred horsepower, you probably ought not to complain;

  2. Underpowered cars will not necessarily reward you with greater mileage, inasmuch as you have to rev the living whee out of them to get them motivated.

Then again, I have an underpowered car, out of which I routinely rev the living whee, and I still beat the government numbers. Maybe I should test the farging cars.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:23 PM)
4 September 2005
In praise of private wheels

I have no doubt that somewhere, some greener-than-thou type is watching the price of gasoline rise to $3.50, $4, $5, God knows where, and doing a Marv Albertesque "Yes! Now maybe those people will give up their damn cars and ride the bus like they should."

Not a chance, Snowflake:

I'd say people who believe that the automobile is a good thing are feeling pretty justified right now. People in New Orleans who owned cars mostly got themselves safely out of town before the storm (unless they chose to stick around). People who didn't, and were dependent upon on mass transit, wound up drowning, getting herded into the Superdome or the Convention Center or are still otherwise in harm's way, facing possible starvation as well as predation by looters and thugs. Many of them had little choice, of course they were poor people living in a big city. But obviously, they did not wind up better off for not owning a car.

The lesson here is that anybody who can afford a car is crazy not to have one, the dreams of bicycle-riding environmentalists and central planners the world over to the contrary. In addition to its other virtues, a car can get you out of harm's way without having to depend on the government in a time of crisis.

Also note that suicide bombers regularly target trains (London, Madrid, Tokyo), buses (London, Israel) and planes (9/11, the shoe bomber) but rarely if ever go after motorists, who remain more dispersed and therefore less vulnerable except when passing bridges and tunnels.

There remain those who resent the automobile, which puts the individual citizen literally in the driver's seat. But sometimes, the ability to get yourself out of town without waiting for the government to get you there makes all the difference.

And there remain those who are anxious to point out that poor people don't have all these options. This is, of course, one of many reasons why it sucks to be poor, and if you have any ambition and any sense, you'll reorient your life so at some point you become not poor. (Waiting around for the government to do things for you, incidentally, is neither ambitious nor sensible.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:23 AM)
8 September 2005
Changing the laws of physics

Mr Scott, of course, would tell you you canna do that, Captain, but nowhere does it say in the manual that you can't avoid facing them head on.

Your serious drivers eschew front-wheel drive: with two-thirds or so of their weight up front, fwd cars understeer at the limit and often well short of the limit, and sending your power through the same wheels you steer means that sooner or later you're going to put your foot in it and head off into the weeds. This latter phenomenon is called torque steer, and the only reason I don't often experience it in my fwd car is because it doesn't have enough power to force the issue. (Believe me, I've tried.)

Building a fwd performance sedan, therefore, requires some serious rethinking of those laws. The brain trust at Pontiac thought it over, and reasoned: "If we want to improve traction on a rear-driver, we'd put bigger tires on the back. What if ...."

And apparently no one thought of this before. The new Grand Prix GXP has fat 225/50-18 tires in back and fatter 255/45-18 tires in front. Wouldn't this bigger contact patch make torque steer worse? Apparently the controlling factor is the stiffness of the sidewall. (Tire pressures are the same 30 psi front and rear.)

Car and Driver has a full road test in the October issue. Between this and the new Solstice roadster, the We Build Excitement guys might actually be building some excitement these days.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:59 PM)
10 September 2005
Saturday spottings (space considerations)

She was lovely, she was smiling, and she was driving a refrigerator, so naturally I had to talk to her, and that's why you're getting this report on an appliance-white Scion xB.

The top-selling vehicle at Toyota's youth-oriented brand the Scion Web site is larded with annoying hip-hop effluvia to remind you of its mission the xB is unmistakably and unabashedly a box, and Toyota was reportedly surprised that it was outselling its more-normal-looking cousin xA by two or three to one. What's more, its buyers are less likely to be 22-year-olds new to the automotive market than fortyish types who want practicality and don't want to pay out the nose for it.

So it was with this xB owner, who asserted that she could stash nearly as much stuff in the Scion as she could in her Suburban, and what's more, it drinks half the gas. She and the spousal unit prefer the Chevy for freeway duty, mostly because of that road-hugging weight, but most of the time, the fridge is more than adequate, which is a lot more than one expects for $15k right out of the, um, box.

Even feeding Suburbans is a little easier this week, with gas prices falling below $2.70 for the low-suds stuff in some parts of town; I'm not ready to characterize it as a free-fall, but I see a slow dropoff for the next couple of weeks as the Gulf Coast situation becomes less heinous.

Related, this sign on a church in Bethany: EVEN IF WE COULD DRIVE TO HEAVEN WE COULDN'T AFFORD TO GO. This seems a bit pessimistic for a Christian denomination, if you ask me.

There's a club on NW 50th called The Store, which sounds like the opening gambit in a domestic drama. ("Honey, where are you going?" "Oh, just to The Store.") Further down 50th is the Warr Acres line, and I noticed that they haven't updated the signs to reflect the new, higher sales tax not that I really expected them to.

The west side of the city presumably continues to pick up Spanish-speaking inhabitants: I caught a glimpse of an electronic church sign displaying the word MIERCOLES. Wednesday. Of course. I doubt this is the situation that's causing the death of the Baskin-Robbins east of 23rd and Meridian proximity to a Braum's is the more likely culprit but I have no doubt that a lot more changes are in store for this part of town.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:10 PM)
13 September 2005
More clues in California

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has apparently figured out that pushing for next-to-nonexistent emissions levels in new vehicles doesn't do a blessed thing for actual South Coast air quality. While they're not going to relax the standards they have, the District's board has decided to go after real polluters: remote emissions-sensing devices will be placed in random locations in four smog-prone counties and will sniff out the dirtiest exhausts.

While they can't legally order the stinkers off the road, exactly, they will provide incentives:

[O]wners of the vehicles that cough out the most pollution will be contacted by mail and offered $500 for repairs through a local community college, or $1,000 cash to scrap their cars. Those who qualify as low-income residents would be offered an additional $2,000, or a total of $3,000, to retire their clunkers and buy cars that are state-certified as low-emission vehicles.

"Gross polluters," says board chairman William Burke, "make up about 10 percent of the passenger vehicle fleet, and yet they are responsible for at least 50 percent of the air pollution from that fleet."

I'd be happier if they could order the clunkers off the road, but give the members of the board credit for finally recognizing a problem and taking it on.

(Detected at Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:07 AM)
16 September 2005
Let the degradation begin

Faithful Sandy, my long-suffering (for almost five years now) Mazda sedan, is now showing 49,999.9 miles: time to kiss the warranty goodbye.

Actually, the original factory coverage was three years/50,000 miles, so the warranty has been up for twenty-three months, but there's no string of digits on the dash to tell you when a date has passed.

Were I more cynical I am told this is possible I would assume that horrible things will start happening 500 feet from the parking lot.

And actually, I have one minor concern. I filled up last evening at a Valero station ($2.559, twenty cents below the price of my previous fill), and while the recorded 23.7 mpg is within spec, the last three tanks have been hovering in the just-under-24 range, about 0.5 to 1 mpg less than I usually expect this time of year. Apart from the age of the car, only one thing has changed: the windshield, which probably doesn't matter, and the molding around it, which might, since it's slightly smaller and tighter than the OEM product, leaving a seemingly-insignificant gap in the channel which, I'm guessing, has a small negative effect on airflow. Then again, I only got Bs in physics, and at least I can see out of the darn thing.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:13 AM)
17 September 2005
Suburban blighting

Kevin Connors comments on Ariana Huffington's Sierra Club transport:

I actually know a lot of Sierra Clubber types who drive SUVs. And, when queried about this apparent paradox, the response is almost always the same, "well, I actually USE mine."

Which is okay by me, although:

Actually, if we based ... vehicle "allotment" on just what we absolutely needed most of the time, we'd almost all be riding motorcycles.

I could deal with that, I think, though I'm not about to argue "two wheels good, four wheels bad." Besides, it will never catch on in the Nanny State. P. J. O'Rourke once imagined what it might be like if the motorcycle had never been invented until now, and it went something like this:

"What, are you nuts? Two wheels? Two wheels? Are you out of your freaking mind? Where's the 5-mph bumper? Where's the airbag? You can't be serious about putting this insane thing on public roads!"

What they really want, I'm starting to think, is for each of us to own an impenetrable flying plastic bubble which runs on geese farts or something.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:58 PM)
19 September 2005
Slow rocket to oblivion

The last Oldsmobile was built in April 2004, but that doesn't mean there aren't any left on the dealer lots: Automotive News (thanks to the Autoextremist) reports that in August, 93 Oldsmobiles were sold, bringing the total for the year to date to 1,634.

It occurs to me that this would be a really good time to buy an Olds, not only because of presumably humongous sales incentives, but the sheer delight of shocking friends and neighbors ("Where in God's name did you find that?"). Not that my budget would permit anything much above, um, a Plymouth.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:35 AM)
30 September 2005
Expunged at last

The very last Ford Excursion, the biggest, if not necessarily baddest, SUV on the market, will be built today in Louisville.

Perhaps Ford will have some leftover 44-gallon fuel tanks to bolt into an extended version of the Expedition.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:21 AM)
6 October 2005
Where angels feel the tread

If you made a list of everything you'd consider buying over the Net, automobile tires are probably way down there, perhaps above cheeseburgers but well below books and music and tchotchkes.

It's a fairly busy time at work these days, and I said to myself, "Self, do you really want to go buzzing all over town looking for P205/60R-15s?"

I didn't. Enter the Tire Rack, a major dealer (lots of big brands) with a Web storefront and the ability to drop-ship a quartet of donuts to a nearby tire shop for installation.

I knew about these guys because they sponsor One Lap of America, one of the more amusing racing events around, and because they have five or six pages in almost every major auto mag every month.

And while I figure I'd have no problem finding the low-end Bridgestone Turanzas I've been driving on for 50,000 miles, I didn't much like them; while dry grip is decent, they let go way too easily in the wet, and they're noisy to boot. (There is a Turanza series above this one, but the price differential struck me as excessive.) I'd had Michelin X-Ones on my previous car, which I really liked, but which are amazingly pricey when you can find them.

In the end, I called upon Dunlop, who had made the OEM tires for my old Toyota Celica back in the immediate post-Fred Flintstone era, and who offered the SP Sport A2 Plus in the size I needed and with an appropriate speed rating: H. (My car won't do 130 mph, but the tires could take it if it could.) If you pay attention to UTQR ratings: treadwear 460, traction AA, temperature A. Four of these came to a stirringly-negligible $224, plus forty bucks to UPS them out of Indiana and whatever (I'm guessing $100) I get charged by A to Z Tire Warehouse over on NW 10th, who will be doing the install.

If the $370-ish tab seems high to you, keep in mind that it's worth something simply to avoid going to Pep Boys.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:00 AM)
7 October 2005
Trust us

Car and Driver editor Csaba Csere has heard the same stories you have about so-called "plug-in" hybrids that get triple-digit gas mileage. In his November column, he reveals that he dispatched editor-at-large Barry Winfield to get some seat time in one of these cars if at all possible.

It wasn't. Writes Winfield: "The developers of plug-in hybrids are extremely unwilling to have their babies tested by any means right now." Some things are known: with the gasoline engine disconnected, the Toyota Prius, the usual test bed for plug-ins, is limited to 28 bhp running on batteries only, and tops out at around 34 mph.

Winfield's conclusion after trying to get a grip on the state of this particular art:

[T]he plug-in hybrid developers are happy to have the uncritical support of various newspaper journalists who blithely reprint the claims of 250 mpg, but as soon as you say fuel consumption or performance test, they're not having any of it.

C/D, whatever their degree of cynicism, actually did test a Honda FCX fuel-cell vehicle this year, and they reported that apart from a different portfolio of noises, it was pretty much like driving a Civic assuming you could fatten a Civic up to 3700 lb. Of course, there is as yet no hydrogen-refueling infrastructure to speak of, but the FCX seems much closer to being a Real Car than any of these electrified buggies.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:21 AM)
8 October 2005
Compared to those frugal SUVs

I continue to get search queries for the gas mileage on the Bugatti Veyron 16.4, which is currently in production, which costs, as Dr. Evil might say, one MILLION euros, and which apparently can actually reach its top speed of 400 km/hr, a couple of ticks over 250 mph.

At this price, what could you possibly care about fuel consumption? Still, Wolfgang Schreiber, head of Bugatti engineering, assures you (in Automobile, 11/05) that it's "acceptable":

In normal use, the Bugatti typically betters 12 mpg. At full throttle in top gear, however, you are looking more at something like 4 mpg.

This is pretty close to what my sister got out of her Dodge Li'l Red Express Truck, which wasn't nearly as fast. Or as expensive.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:16 PM)
12 October 2005
Delphi as an oracle of sorts

In the 1990s, General Motors spun off its parts business to a separate company called Delphi. This past weekend, Delphi's US operation filed for bankruptcy. What does this portend? Peter M. DeLorenzo, in his capacity as the Autoextremist:

[The bankruptcy of] Delphi, in effect, is the equivalent of the canary in the mineshaft, signaling an entire industry and the nation that the domestic auto industry is at the precipice of unthinkable disaster. Detroit is competing at a dramatic disadvantage in every phase of the game and its stratospherically out-of-whack cost structure is just one part of it. The other part lies in the predatory trade policies, currency manipulation practices and home market protectionism as practiced by Japan, Inc., Korea and China that Detroit is dealing with on a daily basis.

Given the fact that something like one out of every eight jobs in this country is connected somehow to the automobile, this isn't good news for anyone. And where Detroit goes, so goes the nation:

The implosion of Detroit will also be a dramatic wakeup call for the nation itself. This country cannot continue on the path it's going without dealing with the fundamental issues of health care and pensions. And our government simply cannot continue to allow its trading partners to competitively exploit our industries to the long-term detriment and deterioration of our own manufacturing base.

The Delphi bankruptcy marks the beginning of the end for an industry and a way of life, as we know it. It also affords this industry and the country a golden opportunity to reinvent and reposition itself for a brighter, more competitive future.

When one door closes, another opens. But look for some folks to figure out a way to jimmy the locks.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:23 AM)
17 October 2005
Here come the copays

General Motors is expected to spend $5.6 billion on health care for employees and retirees this year, which is plainly more than the General can afford. So it might be good news that GM and the United Auto Workers have reached an agreement to trim that expenditure by half.

The deal must be ratified by hourly workers before it becomes official; so far, no one is telling just how much it's going to cost any individual GM employee. And it may not be enough to save Rick Wagoner's bacon, either.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:47 AM)
18 October 2005
The blue-hair test

Susanna reports on a school-bus accident in Wisconsin and wonders if maybe the fact that the driver was 78 years old and up past 2 am has something to do with it:

I think that drivers past a certain age should have to undergo testing that measures not just how well you see or hear, but actual reaction time. And I think that there needs to be provision for not selecting an older driver when there will be additional factors of concern for example, driving a 20 mile loop in the daytime at speeds not exceeding 40 or so mph, in regular traffic that frequently slows you further, is very different from driving at 2 a.m., in the dark, after a day that may be in its 16th or 20th hour, at interstate speeds. The most important thing is the safety of the people involved, not the feelings of the driver. And accusations of "ageism" or "discrimination" need to be shouted down. No one who is 78 years old drives as well as someone who is 48. No one who is 78 drives as well as he himself did at 48. That should matter.

I'm about two-thirds of the way to 78 myself. And in some ways my driving has improved over the last thirty years: I've been working steadily on honing my skills, to the point where, if I'm certainly not qualified for racetrack duty, I definitely suck a lot less than J. Random Lunchpail over there in the center lane. But in terms of reaction time, a significant factor at any speed much over 0 mph, there's no way I'm as fast at 52 as I was at 22; the brain may still be working at close to top speed, but the brain doesn't interact directly with the wheel or with the pedals, and the parts that do don't move as fast as they used to.

To a certain extent, these factors offset one another: I may be ever-so-slightly slower, but experience, which brings with it the additional bonus of lower panic levels, makes up for it right now, anyway. Should the state demand that I prove I'm still roadworthy when I'm 82, I'm not even going to complain.

Update, 19 October: The bus driver in question seems to have been posthumously exonerated.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:31 AM)
25 October 2005
Delete options

Bob Elton suggests that automakers save a few bucks by deleting superfluous features. Some of his ideas:

Spare tires have ... outworn their welcome. Thanks to superior rubber technology, better roadway surfaces and improved maintenance, flat tires are now almost as rare as cell phones are common. Company car administrators have already moved to eliminate spare tires from their fleets, saving their employers fuel as well as money. Lose the spare tire and you can deep-six the jack, lug wrench, tire hold downs and jacking instructions (and associated legal costs). Most motorists are incapable of using the jack and the lug wrench, so why burden the car with the additional weight and complexity? Extra-cautious (and/or rural) drivers could opt for run-flat tires or a more extensive tire repair kit.

I'd like to see some of those "better roadway surfaces" he's talking about. Then again, the last time I had to change a tire was back in the 1990s. Since the government is moving toward mandatory tire-pressure monitoring systems anyway, this isn't as drastic a step as it sounds, and run-flat tires are becoming more common in high-dollar vehicles.

The accelerator cable should also go. Replacing a mechanical cable linkage with an electric motor and a rheostat may not sound like the best way to generate cost savings, but losing the archaic mechanical technology would decrease the cost of other, related systems. For example, an electronically controlled throttle eliminates the need for an idle air control mechanism. A drive-by-wire also makes cruise control less complex; electronically matching engine speed to vehicle speed removes the need for additional cables and mechanisms.

Having once had to replace an IAC valve ($600, of which only about $40 was labor), I'm definitely in favor of this.

Very few motorists regularly check their engine oil. Even fewer monitor their oil pressure gauge, or have the slightest idea what it indicates (much less whether or not the needle is pointing to a safe or a dangerous position). Even if a driver happened to be staring at the oil gauge when a catastrophic loss of pressure occurred, the engine would probably be trashed before the needle sank to the bottom of the red zone.

The same principle holds true for the voltmeter. How many motorists know their car's proper voltage, or what to do if it's not where it should be? A simple warning light would suffice. In fact, every car that has an oil pressure gauge and/or voltmeter also has lamps to monitor low oil pressure and alternator output. The lamps respond a lot faster than gauges, and drivers respond a lot faster to lights than needles.

I'd argue here that I'd rather know what the car is doing, as opposed to what it just quit doing, but I don't think I could do it convincingly, inasmuch as no car I have ever owned had a complete set of gauges. (I once had a Mercury that didn't even have a temp gauge; perversely, it overheated more than the others.)

There's been a debate for years over whether it's useful to have a tachometer in a car with an automatic transmission. My thinking is that if you ever do any manual shifting, you probably ought to have the tach. (In the worst winter weather, I shift for myself.) Besides, I've likely spent way more time near the 6500-rpm redline than most people who own this same make and model; I'd rather see it coming than suddenly feel the fuel cutoff right before 7000.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:20 AM)
28 October 2005
She thinks your tractor's sexy

Ann Althouse, motivated by this New York Times piece, asks: If you're concerned about your sex appeal, what should you drive?

Of course, I don't actually have any sex appeal, but such considerations play little or no role when I seek to acquire a vehicle; my primary goals are to get from Point A to Point B with as little drudgery as possible, consistent with the amount of money I have to spend, and to attract the least possible attention from the gendarmes along the way. For the past five years I have driven a Mazda 626 sedan in Damn Near Invisible Beige, which is lacking in smoky-burnout potential yet handles the twisty bits with considerable (for a front-driver) aplomb. It has scored me no babes, but then I don't expect it to.

(Via the happily-attached Fritz Schranck.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:02 PM)
3 November 2005
Yeah, it's got a Hemi

Just what you don't need in your rear-view mirror: a Dodge Charger police cruiser, photographed in the very heart of Moparville: Auburn Hills, Michigan.

If it has the SRT-8 (425 hp) package, you're really screwed.

(Found at Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:30 AM)
Senku very much

Saith the Professor:

Somebody told me the other day that a hybrid car [he's added a Toyota Highlander Hybrid to the family fleet] was a good "branding" thing for me, because I'm a "political hybrid" blogger. I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but it 's kind of cool. What I really am is a gadget-head, which made the hybrid more appealing in fact, I realized that I now don't own a normal car at all: The Mazda has a rotary engine. Maybe I'm just odd. But at least I get good mileage!

Have I got a car for him.

Mazda's Senku, a concept shown at the 2005 Tokyo Auto Show, is, by golly, a rotary rocket with a hybrid powertrain. Like the RX-8, it's a 2+2, but it's about nine inches longer, which matters if you insist on sitting in the back seat, and half of the glass roof contains solar panels which can be used to recharge the battery pack.

Were I ten years younger and ten times wealthier, I'd put this at the very top of my want list. By no coincidence, that describes the InstaMan perfectly.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:09 PM)
5 November 2005
Bumper crop

For some reason, bits and pieces of this paragraph have been sitting in the back of my head for half my lifetime, and finally I got hold of the full text.

Original appearance: Car and Driver, October 1979, a column by editor David E. Davis, Jr. He's quoting, he says, "the smartest man in Detroit," who is otherwise unidentified Frank Winchell? Bob Lutz? on the subject of crash tests, and the dummies who have faith in them:

I only hope that my great-grandchildren, looking back on this period with all its stupidity and institutionalized superstition, will appreciate the fact that I was against everything. Take crashworthiness. Nothing else made by man or God is designed to crash. Ships aren't designed to sink. Jet aircraft aren't designed to crash. Only cars. Try to imagine a rainbow trout or a tiger that was designed to withstand a 30-mph barrier impact. A wild duck designed to survive the federal barrier test would be the funniest-looking organism you ever saw. It wouldn't be able to lift off the water, let alone fly. Have you ever noticed that virtually everything in nature is beautiful? That's because it's been allowed to evolve along lines that make it most efficient for the tasks it has to perform. Nature protects her creatures from crashing by providing them with mobility, and the instincts to take advantage of that mobility. Creatures that persist in crashing into barriers don't become better adapted to barrier crashes, they become extinct, as they should.

Of course, now we have a multiplicity of air bags, based on the notion that what you really need is not the ability to avoid an accident it is an immutable law of the American road that anyone who promises to learn how to parallel-park some day can get a driver's license but an explosion a few centimeters from your breastbone that drops the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man in your lap. And nowadays, you can be ticketed for not fastening your seat belt, which is no different, qualitatively, from being fined for ordering extra mayo on your Whopper. (Not that I'd ever order any mayo on a Whopper, but this is an aesthetic issue, not a health issue, and if it becomes a health issue well, I can only hope that my great-grandchildren, looking back on this period with all its stupidity and institutionalized superstition, will appreciate the fact that I was against everything.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:12 AM)
7 November 2005
I guess it still Hertz

A couple of months ago, Ford Motor Company announced that it would spin off Hertz, its wholly-owned auto-rental unit, to a group of private investors.

Today Hertz chairman Craig Koch says he will step down as of the first of January because of a "family medical issue."

That's the first of January 2007.

The reader who pointed me to this story commented: "I wish I knew 14 months in advance when my family would have to deal with a 'medical issue'."

I don't know. I once left a job because of "mutual illness": I was sick of them, and they were sick of me.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:04 PM)
9 November 2005
Order option package MCP

Chevrolet has put out a little twelve-page booklet which I found glued to the inside of one of the car mags this month. It's called MEN, WOMEN AND THE TRUCK, subtitled A RELATIONSHIP HANDBOOK, and the bow-tie boys have managed to work in just about any vehicle-related sexual stereotype you can think of. I mean, here's the opening: GIRLS PLAY WITH DOLLS. BOYS PLAY WITH TRUCKS. LET'S START THERE.

But the real winner is page 10, the last full page of text. It begins, yes, with all caps, LADIES, YOU'RE GOING TO OUTLIVE THE MEN ANYWAY.

Not really fair, is it? Nonetheless, it's statistically true. You need to soften this news with more truck to love inside and out. The Chevy Silverado Half-Ton Crew should do the trick. Surround him in an available plush leather-appointed interior larger than either Ford or Toyota. Entertain him with an available 150-channel XM Satellite Radio and rear-seat DVD with auxiliary audio/video jacks. Empower him with a wireless remote control. Give him four full-size doors so he and his friends can make the most of this life. Show him that the most distinctive difference between men and women is your generosity and benevolence when it comes to trucks. And heck, when he's gone, the resale on this bad boy is going to be sweet.

If I hear of a copywriter in Detroit being run over by a Silverado driven by his wife, I'm going to assume it's the guy who wrote this.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:10 PM)
10 November 2005
Cruiserline Ventiports

That mouthful of Fifties populuxe jargon is, in fact, the official name for Buick portholes, which Donald Pittenger remembers fondly.

His larger point, though, is that General Motors has largely forgotten how to style its cars:

Back between 1930 and 1970, GM pretty much ruled that roost. However, in recent decades the company stumbled. By the early 1980s, cost-saving procedures resulted in a model lineup where it was hard to tell Chevrolets from Buicks, as was famously portrayed on a 1983 Fortune magazine cover. Since then, GM has tried hard to distinguish its brands, though not as successfully as it once did.

Cadillac, at least, has some distinct styling these days. But they'll never be able to explain how come four different brands (Chevy, Pontiac, Buick and Saturn) need a copy of the same indifferent minivan.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:23 AM)
12 November 2005
It's not like they're making money on them

Brock Yates, in his Car and Driver column for December, suggests a way for Detroit to clear their inventory of unsold cars:

Why not, as a consortium, offer up maybe 10,000 cars (all stuck in inventory, anyway) at $1 each to help the victims on the Gulf Coast? This would be not only a massive act of mercy while empowering the helpless but also a timeless act of public-relations brilliance.

Can anyone think of a reason why this might be a bad idea?

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:59 PM)
14 November 2005
Dodging the usual channels

"And when they got through, the title weighed sixty pounds," sang Johnny Cash in "One Piece at a Time" way back in 1976. The tale of a GM assembly-line worker who hides individual parts in his lunchbox until he has enough to build a whole Cadillac, brand-new but weird-looking because of model changes over all those years, it's funny as heck, and it might even possibly be inspirational as well: one fellow was swiping parts from a DaimlerChrysler plant near St. Louis and then selling them on eBay. For his efforts, Ronald Casagrande got 13 months in the Big House and was ordered to pay $131,000 in restitution, $31,000 more than Cash's line worker estimated his multi-year monster to be worth.

Apparently there is karma at work here: a commenter at Autoblog, where I found this story, notes that Casagrande's last name means, yes, "Big House."

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:20 AM)
16 November 2005
Because we always need sports cars

AC Cars, founded in 1901, is the oldest British automaker still in business. The very definition of a low-volume manufacturer, they dribbled out small quantities of sports cars for decades, even mailing a few to the US starting in 1937.

Perhaps AC's biggest hit was the Ace, which first appeared in 1953. It was fast, but not wicked fast. Enter Carroll Shelby, who showed up at AC's door in 1961 with the idea of shoehorning a Ford V8 under the Ace's bonnet: a 260 at first, then a 289, finally the brutal 427. The Shelby cars were called Cobra, and their place in history was assured many years ago.

Now AC is coming to America, taking over a Bridgeport, Connecticut plant that once built the 1895 Armstrong, where three models including the newest version of the Ace, introduced in 1997 will be built. Production will be about 50 cars in the first year, eventually increasing to about 700.

The current Ace doesn't look like the Cobra, but it's the same idea: a relatively light bodyshell (though at 3300 lb, it's about half a ton more than Shelby's snake) with a snarly V8 at the front. Don't expect any change back from a $100,000 bill.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:00 AM)
21 November 2005
The five one one

Florida has launched its 511 service, which provides information for travelers statewide through a single number. This brings the total number of 511-equipped states to twenty; eventually the Federal Highway Administration would like to see 511 utilized everywhere in the country, though it's going to take a while (and a fair chunk of change) to implement.

Besides, who can remember something like 405-425-2385?

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:22 PM)
22 November 2005
The mark of excrement

Matt Rosenberg says nothing will change at General Motors:

I've been a Honda guy ever since I grew up. Reliability is what matters. And so I don't expect that GM's big job cuts, announced today, will make a whit of difference. They'll still be out there peddling third-rate product to the public, with the sycophantic hacks of the American auto press still pimping for them, just like always. The main concern at GM will remain the care and feeding of the union and union pensioners, and moving enough product to get some numbers that investors and analysts like. But not making good motor vehicles.

General Motors, if you look at the balance sheet, isn't a car company: it's a finance company (GMAC) that vends motor vehicles on the side. Which is why talk earlier this year that GM might actually spin off GMAC, one of its few divisions that ever turns a profit, was viewed as suicidal; they did eventually sell off three-fifths of their commercial-mortgage operation, then unloaded $55 billion worth of car loans onto Bank of America, perhaps to raise cash during these troubled times.

My own prescription, and if anyone actually follows it, I will be surprised:

  • Sell Saab. It was a lousy deal to begin with, and the result is some very unSaablike vehicles for the sake of economies of scale. People buy Saabs because they're supposed to be unique, even goddamn weird; Saabs are not supposed to be like Subarus (9-2X) and Chevys (9-3) and most especially Chevy trucks (9-7X).

  • Cut back to 2.5 divisions: Chevrolet and Cadillac, with Hummer on the side as a niche product. Buick, Pontiac, GMC, Saturn all expendable, all way past their shelf date. (Jack up the Solstice's price by $5000 and give it to Cadillac.)

  • And now that you don't have to make three or four copies of the same damn car anymore, you can afford to make one version, and make it excellent.

Then again, there's always Chapter 11.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:24 PM)
2 December 2005
Empty the ashtray while you're at it

Having a radio/CD player in your car has adverse effects on fuel economy, says Diane, and upon reading the first line, I reasoned it out: well, there is that small increment of additional weight, and if you open the windows to inflict your miserable taste in music on the rest of the world, you do serious damage to your aerodynamics. (People with good musical taste don't blast it across two lanes for some reason.)

But no, it's nothing so complex:

I found myself this morning driving around the block so I could listen to the end of the song that was playing on the radio.

You know, if this gets around, it could kill off NPR's Driveway Moments altogether.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:23 AM)
7 December 2005
White flags from the Blue Oval

Dear Bill Ford:

GLBT counts for a hell of a lot more in the marketplace than AFA.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:06 PM)
8 December 2005
Double-nickel: still dead

Better transportation is faster, safer and cheaper.

Ten years ago today, we took a step toward the first two of those goals by repealing the national 55-mph speed limit inflicted upon us in the 1970s. For more than two decades this example of government meddling at its most fatuous stifled traffic, ostensibly in the name of saving fuel as a result of OPEC's oil embargo; when the embargo was lifted, the speed limit remained, justified this time as a safety measure. And the government was serious: they even mandated that speedometers in motor vehicles give special prominence to 55, and that no readings over 85 mph be permitted. (Which, of course, in yet another example of the inexorable Law of Unintended Consequences, led to a lot of people speeding over 85 just to see what would happen.)

Ten years after repeal, traffic is moving faster, to the extent that higher traffic levels permit it to move faster, and the death rate continues to decline. It's arguable whether we're saving any money with the higher limits time is worth something, I contend but as Loaf's Law says, two out of three ain't bad.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:36 PM)
1 January 2006
Assuming you don't lose your phone

I can see the demand for this. The Texas electronics firm Keyless Ride is introducing a new remote-control system which permits you to access your existing keyless-entry system with devices other than your fob: a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, perhaps.

So if you lock your keys in the car, you just hop on the cell, dial up a code, and the door pops open.

(Or, if you're a cheap so-and-so like me, you have a spare key in another pocket.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:14 PM)
Ode to a road

What's the most famous road in America?

Right you are. But Route 66 is less than a pale shadow of itself these days, more memory than actual roadway, and the remaining drivable sections of it are slowly, sometimes not slowly, being reincarnated as tourist traps.

That leaves the crown to the New Jersey Turnpike, a supersized ribbon of asphalt and angst that bisects the Garden State, the subject of a six-page tribute by David Holzman in the February issue of Car and Driver.

I first drove the Turnpike in 2001. Having only just finished a vaguely-similar road in Pennsylvania, I was filled with trepidation: C/D's own Brock Yates had once described the Turnpike as the American equivalent of MiG Alley, and, well, I'm no fighter pilot. It took only a few miles, though, for me to realize that if I were going to get into trouble, it would be caused by some nimrod with out-of-state plates: someone like, um, me.

Holzman's piece doesn't romanticize the Turnpike, but neither does it complain: the article, like the Turnpike itself, simply is, and in true Jersey fashion, it doesn't much concern itself with your reaction. The usual names are checked, from Bruce Springsteen to the Barista of Bloomfield Avenue, and there are the obligatory mentions of the delicate scent of sulfur dioxide and Paul Simon's whine about counting the cars with Kathy. But what matters here is the road, and whether you think it's the nexus of American despair or simply the least-complicated way from Point A to Point B, last year motorists and truckers rolled up more than six billion miles and paid $440 million in tolls.

The Interstate system, which wasn't even on the drawing boards when the New Jersey Turnpike was built, was intended as a reasonable facsimile of the German autobahnen. The Turnpike never had any such international ambitions: it's as American as apple pie and more so, lately, than Chevrolet. Houston architect R. Gregory Turner explains:

The turnpike is a swaggering giant that plows through the industrial heartland of the East Coast, overpowering even the mighty landscape of refineries, airports, and tank farms that have the temerity to get in its path. It is a muscular 12 lanes wide, formed of masses of concrete, steel, and asphalt. It is not a subtle roadway, it is straightforward; indeed, it is virtually straight! Its beauty is in its simplicity.

Mr Turner, I should point out, used to live near Exit 9.

And for a lot of us, when we think of New Jersey, we don't necessarily think of the Boss, the corruption, the chemicals, The Sopranos, or even the Shore; we think of the New Jersey Turnpike, and we wonder if we're going to run into beach traffic.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:18 PM)
3 January 2006
Stinking badges

"Aviator," in the Lincoln lineup, was seen as the junior Navigator and a notch up from its Mercury and Ford cousins. Now it's about to become the MKX, a fragment of a Scrabble® rack that doesn't score well in Ravenwood's Universe:

Call me crazy, but I prefer my cars to have a name rather than the alphabet soup letters that are so popular now-a-days. I guess I just don't have time to remember all those letters. I don't own a Lincoln, although I did once take a look at the Aviator and other models. I would not have even considered buying anything called the MKX.

I blame this on Honda, which sold bazillions of Acura Legends and Integras before deciding that they'd rather be known for Acuras than for the bazillions of Legends and Integras on the road. Now there's the RL, the TL, the TSX and the MDX, and can you tell anything about any of them from this jumble of consonants?

If you're going to have alphanumerics, they ought to be at least hierarchical: BMW sells a 3-series, a 5-series, a 6-series and a 7-series here, in approximate order of price (the 6, sold only as a coupe, is pricier than the 7 it most closely resembles, though there are other 7s), plus high-performance M versions (for instance, M3 and M5). No harder to comprehend than, say, the TTLB Ecosystem.

Ford, at least, was ingenious enough to come up with a scheme to name all its SUVs with E words (Explorer, Expedition, Escape) and its cars with F words (Fusion, Focus and stretching it a bit Five Hundred). And no, I don't want to hear your F word for a Ford car. Chevrolet, of course, has its own collection of C words. But Chevy was the major practitioner of the fine art of naming vehicles after places no one would ever see them: think Bel Air or Biscayne. (They still sell Malibu and Monte Carlo, even today.) And Hyundai has named its two SUVs after Western cities: Santa Fe and Tucson. Might there be a Reno in its future? Dodge has already locked up Durango, after all.

Toyota used to have a whole bunch of C words of its own: Camry, Celica, Corolla, and the earlier Crown, Corona and Cressida. I always coveted the Cressida, and once suggested to a dealer that they develop a Troilus package for their pickup truck. This got as much response as you think it did. They occasionally did deviate from the scheme, though: there was, for example, the MR2, almost immediately dubbed "Mister Two" in the press, a tiny two-seat roadster that had just about enough cargo space for a Hershey bar if you didn't get the kind with almonds.

Disclosure: I drive a Mazda 626. This meant more back when they had 323s and 929s on the lot.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:10 PM)
5 January 2006
No exploding steering wheel

The Cross Lander sport-utility vehicle, assembled in Romania, is being granted an exemption from the NHTSA airbag requirements until May 2008; the manufacturer had claimed economic hardship.

Since the government demands airbags only on vehicles weighing 5500 lb and under, look for the 2009 model Cross Lander to gain about 1100 lb of road-hugging weight. And no, this shouldn't be difficult; Kia's first Sedona minivan weighed 4700 lb or so, a direct result of corporate penury at the time, they couldn't afford any of the usual automotive weight-saving techniques and still meet their price point.

In the meantime, US-bound Cross Landers will bear a government-inflicted warning label. When they'll actually get here, of course, remains to be seen.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:37 AM)
12 January 2006
Bow-tie heaven

Kim du Toit came up with a list of a dozen icons that define America, and at the very top was the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, a car that even today is recognizable seemingly from blocks away, even by people who claim they can't stand cars.

Robert Cumberford, then on the GM design staff and now Automotive Design Editor of Automobile, said last year that the '57 came out the way it did because the promised new bodyshell wasn't going to be ready in time, and they had to do the best they could to disguise the '55-'56 bodywork. While the '55 is decidedly the simplest and arguably the purest incarnation of this generation, the '57 is clearly bolder and no doubt this is why it gets the nod over its older sister.

And those rubber boobs on the front? Cumberford says that they were intended to be chrome, but they tended to smash the taillights of the car in front on the transporters.

As for the '58 with that fancy new bodyshell forget about it. Almost everyone else did.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:01 PM)
23 January 2006
Finagling is Job 1

When General Motors announced its restructuring plan, word came down from Detroit that it didn't matter what kind of incentives were offered to keep, say, Oklahoma City Assembly open: what's done is done, and that's that.

Ford, hints DetroitWonk, will not be quite so inflexible and adamantine:

The assembly plants which are speculated to be most at risk for closure are in St. Louis, Missouri; St. Paul, Minnesota; Atlanta, Georgia; St. Thomas, Ontario; Cuatitlan, Mexico; and most important to many of our readers, the Wixom plant here in Michigan. The reasons for targeting these plants have to do with their age, their product lines and their lack of flexibility. There's another reason which makes this round of cuts more like Survivor than previous rounds.

And that reason is, as a source from the inside of Ford's executive office told me earlier today, "we have to play the states against one another". Over the past week, as targets have popped up in the media, states and their leaders have been scrambling to offer tax credits and any other incentive from their individual economic development toolsets they may have to keep their plants up and running in their states.

Which is what happened with GM; the General subsequently rebuffed the states. The Ford situation apparently will be different:

[T]his is all part of Ford's strategy. Their goal appears to be to announce a number of facilities to close that is larger than the actual number they need to close to reach their targets. Then, as in Survivor, the states and their elected leadership will compete against each other to see who can put together the most valuable economic development incentive package possible.

And the least valuable, presumably, will be voted off the island. Will this work any better? Too early to tell.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Update, 11 am: Here's the official Ford announcement. This line at the bottom of the list of plants to be idled is the kicker:

Two additional assembly plants, which will be determined later this year.

At least as flexible as a Thunderbird ragtop going over a railroad track.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:32 AM)
28 January 2006
We're just not buying

Rob Port asks a reasonable question:

[I]f cars are lasting longer in the market wouldn't it be logical to conclude that this would drive down demand for new cars? And if that's true, couldn't it also be true that this increased durability has played into the woes faced by Ford and General Motors of late?

Foreign auto makers have long outstripped domestic car companies in terms of producing durable automobiles, so I would expect that the increases in longevity detailed [here] have to do, mostly, with an increase in the quality of domestic car craftsmanship. And if product turnover in the domestic auto market has decreased it means that domestic car companies, primarily Ford and General Motors, are selling fewer cars.

Domestic car craftsmanship is better than it used to be. Unfortunately, the Japanese have continued to improve even as Detroit did its darnedest to catch up, with the results you'd expect. (The Europeans, for some reason I'd guess too many gee-whiz electronic gizmos have been slipping of late.)

A bigger factor in the decline of Detroit is its persistent last-generation thinking. I got a look at a shiny new Chevrolet Cobalt the other day. It's very sensible, screwed together well, and possessed of an interior which is obviously inexpensive yet doesn't scream CHEAP! at you from every plastic surface. Definitely a quality piece. On the other hand, so was my daughter's '99 Toyota Corolla, and that was two vehicles ago for her.

Detroit's biggest hits for "hits," read "anything for which they don't have to offer rebates and incentives" are the cars that don't follow someone else's lead, the vehicles that you simply can't get anywhere else. The Chrysler 300, the return of the traditional American big RWD sedan with an extra helping of road sense, has no Japanese equivalent at all, and the closest thing to it, the Mercedes-Benz E-class, will easily cost you ten to twenty-five grand more. (The 300, by no coincidence, got many of its underpinnings from the outgoing E-class.) Ford's Mustang is the last surviving pony car, and the new one evokes more of the spirit of the mid-1960s original than did any of the Mustangs that followed. Chrysler's pocket-sized panel truck, the PT Cruiser, sells as well as ever. The one derivative American car that's a hit is the Pontiac Solstice, the first American roadster that can play on the same field with Mazda's MX-5/Miata; it's sold out for the rest of the year. (A Saturn version, tagged Sky, follows.)

Where Japan (accompanied increasingly by Korea) is eating Detroit's lunch is in the mid-sized sedan segment, where Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord finish one-two (once in a while two-one) every year. Against this two-headed juggernaut, Ford put up the same Taurus for ten years. Oldsmobile, which used to own this segment (can you say "Cutlass"?), is deader than Francisco Franco.

And with the average new car pushing $28,000, people hate car payments more than ever, especially with 72-month notes. (I hated my 60-month note, and paid it off in 53.) With that kind of money at stake, it's hard to imagine a situation in which buying a new car would be cost-effective compared with fixing up the old one.

Point to ponder: I drive a mid-sized sedan with a Japanese nameplate that was built in Michigan with 60 percent domestic parts by a UAW crew. It is now six years old. The one thing that has failed on it is the knob for the seat-height adjustment on the driver's side: it's cracked and falls off the threaded bolt. And frankly, if you had to sit under me for half an hour a day minimum for the better part of six years, you'd be cracked too.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:40 PM)
3 February 2006
A man of constant maintenance

Since Acidman is almost pathologically truthful these days, I'll take this at face value:

I'll be 54 years old in two weeks. I've owned a total of ELEVEN different cars in my life.... I suppose that's really not very many, especially when I consider where I stand right now.

I'd say it's as close to the practical minimum as you can get unless you happen to be, um, me. My next birthday is my 53rd; my current car is my sixth, and that includes one I hardly ever drove and gave up in the separation agreement. (Scarier: when I turned 40, I was still on the third.)

I think we can all agree, though, that car payments are an abomination unto the Lord.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:31 AM)
6 February 2006
Slower going in the Big Apple

I have admittedly not driven much in the City of New York no more than a couple of hours at most but when I did, I did not exceed the posted speed limits, when I could find said limits posted, though this is due more to crushing volumes of traffic than to my own dubious virtue.

That said, though, this perturbed me greatly:

On his weekly WABC-AM radio show yesterday, [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg voiced support for placing devices atop taxis and private vehicles that would light up when motorists exceed the speed limit, making speeders easy prey for cops. He mentioned seeing such alarms in Singapore.

"We all want the laws enforced. And when we have technology [that] can let us enforce the law and save us money in doing so, what's the argument against that?" Bloomberg mused.

"If I have a police officer watching to see if you're going down the street speeding, or the car reports automatically when you speed, you know, is either of those things fundamentally different in its infringement on your liberties?"

Well, the NYPD does other things besides watch for speeders; their presence on city streets can be justified quite easily. And while it could be argued that installing one of these contraptions could be added to the list of conditions for possessing a NYC taxi medallion without difficulty, I'm thinking that mandating them for everyone will run into some Fifth Amendment issues.

Besides, does Bloomberg really want to be taking his lead on civil liberties from Singapore? Migod, he'll be having smokers caned.

(Via Gawker.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:00 PM)
9 February 2006
Speed thrills

I suspect one learns patience in a Corvette: being able to do well over the speed limit, well over twice the speed limit in some instances, and yet knowing that doing so will bring down the wrath of the gendarmes, would seem to make one a trifle cautious.

And I figure the guy behind me this morning on the southbound onramp to I-35 from I-44 east, who was keeping his distance, had already planned out his next few seconds: follow the ramp at 40-45 mph, behind that bog-slow sedan in front of him, and then dart leftwards into the I-35 traffic flow and make up the lost time. A reasonable plan, if I say so myself.

What he didn't figure is that I routinely take this ramp at 60, and while he was throttling back, I was applying what power I had, which admittedly wasn't a great deal, and tightening the curve. By the time Merge or Else came up, I'd left him five or six car-lengths behind, and what's more, I'd left him an opening more than sufficient to allow him into the flow.

Of course, I had the advantage of being in front and being able to see what was coming. But this little transaction tends to reinforce one of my cherished beliefs: it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slowly. And while I know better than to dice with Corvettes on the straightaways, I don't do at all badly on the twisty bits. (This, of course, is another justification for the World Tours: there's a dearth of twisty bits on the Oklahoma City waffle-iron street grid.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:23 AM)
16 February 2006
The Emperor's new sedan

Donald Pittenger looks at Chrysler's Imperial concept (pictures from Autoblog here), and he doesn't like what he sees:

To me, the really ugly part is the rear. The shape of the trunk and its detailing focuses my eye on the center, making the rear seem too narrow and too tall, if the photos are any guide. I think this pinched look needs to be replaced with something that is distinctive yet will enhance the car's appearance.

The front also does not please me, because it too seems pinched but for reason of having all the brightwork in the center. I think small, bright details of some sort are needed at the outer edges of the headlight area into order to keep the viewer's eye moving from side-to-side, giving the impression of greater width.

Me, I think they're trying too hard to make it look like the current Rolls-Royce Phantom: there's the same impression of bank-vault mass, the same haughty height, the same excess of brightwork on top of the grille although at the Imp's presumed sub-$50k price point, you won't get anything like the Spirit of Ecstasy atop that metal slab.

Then there's this, from Automobile Magazine (March):

We fear, though, the nameplate has been dragged through the mud one too many times: it was a perennial also-ran to Lincoln and Cadillac in the '60s and '70s, a gone-in-a-minute coupe in the '80s, and a gilded K-car in the '90s.

Still, Mopar doesn't have any other high-end nomenclature in the bin, unless they want to exhume, say, "Adventurer" from the mausoleum where they stashed DeSoto, and this car simply doesn't look adventurous. Or, for that matter, imperial.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:01 AM)
22 February 2006
On Her Majesty's Transmission Service

You'd think that if anyone could drive a stick shift, it would be Bond. James Bond.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:11 PM)
24 February 2006
Recharge at any Tim Hortons

Well, why not? It's a Segway Police Interceptor:

The i180 Police maximizes a police officer's visibility, as well as his or her ability to be seen by others. Raising an officer an additional eight inches off the ground, it places an officer a clear head above the crowd. That means that an officer will be seen when they need their presence felt. Segway HT riders have superior sight lines for traffic management, crowd control, and community policing. The Segway HT i180 Police allows officers to become more approachable, and to respond more quickly to emerging situations.

But does it have a cop motor, a 440 cubic-inch plant, cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks?

(Via View from the Porch.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:35 AM)
6 March 2006
We got to move these refrigerators

Scion's slowest-selling vehicle, the appliance-box xB, nonetheless averages a mere two weeks in dealer inventory before being sold, among the fastest movers in the industry according to the mysterious associates of J. D. Power.

Quickest off the lot? Two other Toyota products, the Prius and the Lexus IS-series, at a mere ten days. The fastest domestic-nameplate movers were the Pontiac Solstice roadster and Buick Lucerne sedan, which fly out of the showroom within 16 and 18 days respectively.

The average vehicle is sold within 58 days, down 8 days from last year.

Glued to the showroom floor: Chrysler's Crossfire (302 days), Land Rover's Freelander (248 days), and the shoulda-retired-years-ago Ford Taurus (246 days).

These are, of course, averages. Be it noted that my car, so far as I can determine, spent approximately 380 days in an unsold state before I signed on the dotted line, and why, yes, there was a rebate.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:00 AM)
8 March 2006
Testy commentary

Things I noticed in the Consumer Reports Auto Issue (April):

  • The magazine considers the '00 Mazda 626 to be one of the "reliable used cars" one can get for "$6000-$8000". Maybe. I've had no trouble with mine. But the Reliability Ratings include only the six-cylinder models perhaps they didn't get enough responses from owners with fours and a '00 626 with a V6 will cost more like $9000.

  • Quote from Environmental Defense's John DeCicco: "Hybrids have been overhyped, and the focus on the hybrid has created this image that if you want to be green, you have to get a hybrid. I think that's a very damaging perception because there are a lot of other ways to save fuel." This was incorporated into an article which states flatly that you'll never save enough fuel with a hybrid to cover the initial cost.

  • Instead of just showing the horizontal bar, they're giving you the actual road-test score (1-100) on each car tested. There was one actual 100: the Porsche Boxster. (The Boxster, however, is not Recommended, due to lack of reliability data.)

  • They got 21 mpg with their base-level Corvette convertible, the same mileage they got with a four-cylinder Dodge Stratus. (And the non-Z06 Vette runs on regular.)

  • A reader sent in an ad for a Ford product with, among other worthwhile features, "anti-lick brakes."

  • Their Scion tC test vehicle came with pricey Bridgestone Potenza RE92 45-series Z-rated tires that cost $680 for four at The Tire Rack. Rather a lot of rubber for a car that sells for under $17k.

I never have liked car shopping much; each year Consumer Reports justifies that dislike. Time to renew the old subscription, I guess.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:11 AM)
31 March 2006
Down from the Fourteenth Floor

Does the end of General Motors start today?

Motor pundit Robert Farago thinks so:

At 9:30am [this] morning, a group of lawyers representing bankrupt auto supplier Delphi will appear in front of a federal judge. The lawyers will file legal motions for Sections 1113 and 1114. It's a legal request to void Delphi's current collective bargaining agreements with the United Auto Workers (UAW). The moment the judge says the word "granted," he will terminate the wage structure, post-retirement health care and life insurance plans for the company's 33k US hourly workers. The UAW will respond with a strike against Delphi. Starved of its former subsidiary's parts, GM's assembly lines will fall silent. The General will begin its final slide into Chapter 11.

Of course, this won't happen instantaneously:

There will be a gap between Delphi's filing, the judge's final ruling (May 8th) and industrial action. During this highly fraught interregnum, as the entire Detroit-based automobile industry stares into the abyss, Delphi President Steve Miller may make a fourth wage and benefits offer to the UAW. The proposal would fall somewhere between the workers' current compensation ($27 per hour) and Miller's last last stand ($16.50 per hour). As we've said before, the UAW will accept nothing less than the status quo, and that's somewhere where Miller won't go at least not without GM footing the bill. Common sense says if GM CEO Rick Wagoner was going to ride to Delphi's rescue perhaps buying back Delphi's domestic plants to maintain the UAW's current deal he would have done so already. Chances are he can't.

Not that The Rick wants to see the status quo vis-à-vis the UAW maintained; it's killing him just as surely as it's killing Delphi.

And if the UAW doesn't budge, it's Tisha b'Av in Detroit, and everyone knows it. Said David Cole of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor:

If you give any employee a choice between gold and silver, they will take gold. But if your choice is between lead and silver, silver looks pretty good.

I think I'll buy zinc futures.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:21 AM)
4 April 2006
Excentrifugal forz

So I'm taking the ess-curve on May at Wilshire in this thing, and half a dozen bags of assorted groceries take the path of least resistance directly into my lap.

Even at 40 mpg, I think I'll have to pass, thank you very much.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:21 AM)
25 April 2006
Which still doesn't justify "Celebrity Eurosport"

One of the most durable urban legends is the notion that Chevrolet's Nova sedan sold poorly in Mexico because "no va" means "it does not go" in Spanish. This tale has been thoroughly debunked over the years, including once by Snopes, but apparently it's persistent enough, even today, to warrant an official denial from General Motors.

On the other hand, American Motors is long gone, chewed up by Renault and then digested by Chrysler, but I'd love to hear them explain the AMC Matador, inasmuch as "matador" means killer and not just of bulls, either.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:13 PM)
9 May 2006
Dearborn fantasies

I did actually spot this as a fake when I saw the original magazine article, although not right away; what's bizarre is that I still want one.

Not that I expect Bill Ford to sign off on production plans, but I think they ought to build one for the show circuit, just to make people shriek.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:22 PM)
14 May 2006
From the Department of Nomenclature

I always thought so, but I had no idea how close I was:

Ever noticed those striped areas that are typically between a ramp and driving lane that may come in handy if you're suddenly forced out of your lane? If so, you just found yourself in the middle of a gore.

Given some of this state's way-short onramps, one might be forgiven for expecting some sort of gore. But apparently that's the name of this zone:

[A] gore is a buffer zone. A little more technically speaking, a gore is the "nondrivable space between divisions of the roadway."

We can presume these were not invented by Al Gore, or surely he would have mentioned them by now.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:55 AM)
16 May 2006
I suppose "Z29" is out

General Motors hasn't committed to building the new Camaro, which they showed in prototype form at the Detroit Auto Show in January, but the Oklahoma House has passed a resolution to encourage the General to (1) build this bitchin' Camaro (2) in the presently-unused Oklahoma City Assembly plant.

Rep. Richard Morrissette (D-OKC) noted that GM has been contemplating a Canadian plant (Oshawa, Ontario) for this platform, and complained:

If they are going to build the all-American sports car a car as American as apple pie and baseball are they really going to build it in Canada? Please.

My own requests for the new Camaro:

  • They really need to enforce some standards of taste on the inevitable Pontiac Firebird version: we don't need a car with a bird on it.

  • It has to appeal to women named Donna.

Besides, Ford's Mustang shouldn't have the pony-car market to itself.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:51 AM)
22 May 2006
From out of nowhere

This morning's commute was punctuated by an unexpected sight: a Pontiac Solstice roadster. Inexplicably, its top was up; even more inexplicably, it bore special manufacturer's plates.

GM rep showing off the new toys for the dealers? I didn't get a look at the driver, but if ever there was a time to sell convertibles, this is it.

Still, this encounter wasn't as weird as one I had Saturday in Midwest City, at the intersection of 15th and Midwest Blvd. The encountee: a beautiful red Honda NSX. Of all the recent Japanese supercars that actually got imported to the States, the NSX was arguably the super-est.

But what's this? It was my understanding that the NSX was badged in North America as an Acura, assigning it to Honda's luxo division. But this one bore no Acura insignia, only the classic Honda "H".

I would have loved to ask the driver about this, but alas, we were going in different directions.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:34 AM)
1 June 2006
Three deuces and a four-speed

You won't see that, nor will there be a 389. For that matter, there won't be any GTO for a couple of years. But General Motors has apparently figured out that if Pontiac has a future, it's as a purveyor of performance cars without front-wheel drive.

And without SUVs and minivans, either; the Montana SV6 has already been banished, and they'd just as soon you didn't remember the Aztek.

This plan fits into the overall repositioning of GM's "minor" labels, with Buick to be pushed as a near-luxury brand and also to be shorn of its trucks, which presumably will wind up as GMCs.

What I'd want from Pontiac, though, is something along the lines of the '59 Catalina: spacious (Wide-Track, even), not overly decorated, a family car for the faster-than-average family. It may be a while before we see this. Too much of a while, says Mickey Kaus:

If GM were a software company they'd be out of business due to a fatally slow reaction-time. Heck, if they were a blog they might be out of business.

How long have I been running this same template?

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:27 AM)
10 June 2006
Once there was a Roadmaster

Now here's a story:

In 1906 automobiles were still in their infancy and an unproven mode of transportation. Early in that year a representative from BUICK MOTOR CARS came to Quincy [Illinois] to find someone to market their automobile, Henry A. Geise Sr. was the person they chose. At the time Henry was already a well known Quincy businessman who operated a sporting goods store that sold hunting and fishing supplies as well as bicycles and motorcycles. Henry agreed to show the new Buick and was soon taking orders. Henry realized he had found a life long business. Later as Henry married and had sons Henry Jr. and Robert he realized the posibility of passing on the business to them. Today the tradition is continuing into the third generation of Geises with the latest Buicks and Pontiacs.

But this is where it ends:

Geise Buick Pontiac at 930 Maine the oldest Buick dealership in the nation is selling its assets to Poage Auto Plaza and will be closing after a century of service.

The dealership has been a downtown Quincy institution since Henry Geise Sr. launched the business in 1906. His sons, Henry Geise Jr. and the late Robert Geise, along with grandson Henry Geise III, continued to keep the Buick dealership going after the elder Geise retired in 1953.

"By the end of the year, Geise Buick will be a thing of the past," said Henry Geise Jr.

Geise, 83, said the time seemed right to bring an end to the family-owned business where he first started working for his father in 1939.

"It's still a profitable business, but it's much more competitive than it used to be," he said. "At my age, I just felt I'd be better off to try to sit back and relax and take it easy."

In 1906, when the Geise dealership was organized, Buick had been selling cars for a total of three years, and founder David Dunbar Buick, inventor of the OHV engine, had already been squeezed out of the company. Tough business, then and now.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:30 AM)
13 June 2006
Let not thy left hand know, etc.

A New Jersey auto dealer is planning on revising its building for greater energy efficiency, and one thing they're doing is installing a Building-Integrated Photovoltaic System as part of the dealership's new roof. The Garden State will kick in some of the cost: New Jersey offers some significant tax advantages for solar installations.

And what sort of clean-and-green tools for mobility does this dealership sell? Why, Hummers, of course.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:31 AM)
14 June 2006
In lieu

As a temporary measure, I am sliding around town in a Dodge Stratus SXT in Frigidaire White. Despite the jumble of letters, this is the bottom-feeder of the line, with a nothing-special four-banger driving the front wheels. It's an acceptable grocery-getter, but not the least bit amusing to drive, and while the seats are better than average, their adjustment range doesn't include any position in which I'm comfortable. I am contemplating returning it to the rental yard and asking for something I can actually deal with. Inasmuch as I'm having to pay for it myself, I can't think of any reason why they'd object.

CarMax has one of Sandy's sisters: a 2002 with the V6 instead of the four. While 40 extra horsepower would be nice, the V6 version is also nose-heavier, which might cut into tossability. Besides, they want twelve thousand dollars, which I presume is somewhere between two and three times what I'm getting for the remains of the old one. Four-cylinder models (I am not looking at anything older than '00) run eight grand and up, and up. (No '03s were made.)

This is the first time I've ever actually given serious thought to installing a tip jar.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:45 AM)
16 June 2006
Tears are not an option

They come standard, dammit.

I bade farewell to my faithful traveling companion today, cleaning out what was left of my personal possessions and sending off the paperwork to sign her over to the ghouls of the salvage business.

(Aside: This is not intended as a slur against the nation's auto recyclers, from whom I've bought parts before and will presumably at some point do so again, but there's still some residual grief here. She was only six, fercrissake. Beyond adolescence, surely, but way too young to retire, especially this way.)

(Further aside: If the eventual auction buyer decides to fix her up and put her back on the road, I'd love to hear about it. I promise not to tell your insurance company that you have a salvage title.)

Found in various nooks and crannies, and retrieved:

  • Four one-dollar coins.
  • One spare back-up/stoplight bulb.
  • Two spare turn-signal bulbs.
  • Cord for hands-free cell-phone use. (Used once.)
  • Owner's manual. (Explanation to follow.)
  • Warranty information on new tires. (To be trashed.)
  • Three bank night-deposit envelopes.
  • Umbrella, black.
  • Two bungee cords.
  • Swiss Army knife.
  • Generic pocket knife.
  • Box of assorted automotive fuses.
  • Tire gauge. (Old-style pen-type.)
  • Eyeglass-repair kit. (Includes two very tiny screwdrivers and a magnifying glass.)
  • Ice scraper, light-duty.
  • Six pens (and two pencils).
  • Moist towelette from Famous Dave's. (Probably no longer moist.)
  • Adjustment knob for driver's seat height.

I was on a very tight onramp today when it dawned on me: you don't know how much you miss a car that can handle these things with aplomb until you start driving one that can't. And maybe it's a bad idea from a purely-psychological standpoint, but it was at that moment that I decided that I did not want to go test drive everything I could possibly afford: I want a known quantity, a car I can drive without having to relearn the fine points, reestablish the rapport, redevelop the finesse, all over again.

So my beloved Sandy will be replaced, in my garage if not necessarily my heart, with one of her sisters: I'm looking for another 626, not the same color if at all possible, model years 2000 through 2002. This was not a popular car sales dropped in each of these three years so there are damned few to choose from in town. (And by "damned few" I mean one, plus one I found in Duncan.)

Accordingly, I addressed myself to CarMax, which had one yesterday but doesn't today, and if none arrives over the weekend, I will have them truck one in from another location. (I've already spotted a likely prospect, in Nashville.)

I hasten to add that I'm not looking for a girlfriend who resembles my ex-wife; that's a totally different dynamic.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:58 PM)
17 June 2006
A ride from the past

There haven't been that many, considering how old I am; then again, I started fairly late never owned a car until I got off active duty and I tend to keep them for a long, long time.

But I should acknowledge Dymphna, a 1975 Toyota Celica GT in Hi, Officer Red, which somehow I managed to keep running until the middle 1990s.

I got married in 1978. At the time, I was driving Susannah, a 1966 Chevrolet Nova two-door sedan with the 230-cubic-inch straight six, an upgrade of sorts from the base 194. Horsepower was 140 gross, probably around 115 net; despite the slugabed two-speed Powerglide automatic, Susannah was fairly quick, and might actually have handled better had there been less of a disparity between front wheels and back, not to mention the fact that the goal at the time was to buy the cheapest tires possible.

My wife did not like this car, and eventually refused to get in it; I gave it to my younger sister, who gave it a proper destruction on her own schedule. Perhaps as a sop to my sentimentality, my lovely bride consented to buying another Nova: a '76, with an actual small-block V8 (the 305). This was my first experience with unleaded gas, and I wasn't impressed, but the family was starting to grow, and the car she had had wasn't really suitable for Mom's Taxi duty, so it devolved upon me.

What she had been driving, of course, was that Celica. It had a considerable set of virtues: a bulletproof SOHC four; a slick five-speed stick, which I eventually learned how to operate well, as opposed to merely well enough to avoid damage; air conditioning that worked at least some of the time; an actual factory FM radio; and real live gauges of the sort Chevy couldn't be bothered to put on its non-sporting models. Despite its Japanese underpinnings, it was not particularly fuel-efficient; she was hard-pressed to wring more than 16 mpg out of it. (EPA numbers were something like 18/23.) I did somewhat better, which annoyed her greatly, since she was careful to upshift around 3000 rpm and minimize the time spent in the lower gears; I, of course, did not. The record for this car was 29 mpg, which was recorded on Interstate 35 in Kansas with a curio cabinet lashed to the roof; I can only conclude that the aerodynamics of this car were so awful that carrying around furniture actually improved them. (I recounted a story of the two of us on a drive here; I ask you kindly not to inquire as to what road this was.)

Over time, I grew to think of Dymphna (she got the name some time around 1983) as damned near indestructible; the Petroleum Tanker Incident in '85 iced the car's rep for the next decade. The Celica was small to begin with, and the truck making the left turn didn't see me just beyond the corner: it was perfectly obvious that I was going to be crushed to death and subsequenly vaporized in a gigantic fireball. Not wanting to miss this for anything in the world I was not a happy camper in those days I floored it.

And bounced off the tire carrier, hanging below the belly of the beast, winding up about three feet from where I'd started. One headlight was crushed, its bezel bent, and the hood angled upward as though it were giving one of Mr. Spock's patented eyebrow raises, but not only was the car still drivable, that bent hood still opened more or less properly. Total damage was $489, for which the transport company cut me a check. I repaired the lights and drove on. Theologians should note that my period of Serious Agnosticism ended at this time.

In 1988, feeling that I'd played out my last hand in Oklahoma the divorce was final in late '87 I drove to Los Angeles, where the first order of business was to register with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Here I discovered the wondrous world of smog checks. As a '75, Dymphna needed only to meet the California 1975 standards; unfortunately, Toyota didn't fit catalysts to this model in 1975 except in California, meaning I had to meet standards established for cats without actual cats. I reasoned that surely I wasn't the only person who had faced this situation before, and a gearhead at an Exxon station in Redondo Beach futzed around with the carb and the timing for about half an hour before presenting me with an actual smog certificate. She'd passed, barely; more surprising, she didn't drive much worse than before. (Keep in mind that this was now a 13-year-old car.)

The California experiment didn't last all that long, and I returned to Oklahoma, my savings depleted and my sense of well-being back down to zero. But I still had Dymphna, even though she was nickel-and-diming me to death. It got to the quarter level in 1995, when I was leaving a supermarket parking lot and discovered I could no longer turn right. (The old recirculating-ball steering wouldn't quite recirculate all the way.) I sold her for $100 to someone who thought he could do something with her; it turned out that indeed he could. I gave her up at 195,000 miles, and I am told that she cleared 200,000 before being clobbered in a hit-and-run on the southside.

I wandered in the automotive wilderness for the next couple of years before discovering that what I really should have been driving was the Mazda 626. But that's another story entirely.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:17 AM)
18 June 2006
Toyota plays hardball

Toyota passed Ford a couple of years ago and is now the world's second-largest automaker. Who, then, do they see as the biggest potential obstacle to world conquest? Number One General Motors? Not even close.

It's Hyundai.

No automaker in recent years has engineered a bigger turnaround than Hyundai, which landed Stateside in the 1980s as a purveyor of cheap Korean crap and now owns the low end of the American market, providing quality vehicles for ten percent less than the competition. In 1998, Hyundai sold about 90,000 cars in the US; last year, they moved 455,000, not counting sales by corporate cousin Kia (about 275,000), and hope to reach a million by 2010.

To do this, though, Hyundai had to banish forever that cheap-Korean-crap stigma, and one of the ways they did it was to upgrade their supplier base in fact, they're now buying some parts from suppliers who also make parts for Toyota. Toyota is not pleased with this development:

"It's like fattening a rival company at Toyota's own development expenses," says [a] Toyota official. Some Toyota executives said, "We may have to pressure (the parts makers) not to do business with Hyundai. It may sound extremely drastic, but we may have to think of raising the stockholdings of our affiliates to make them do as we tell them."

Toyota hasn't always been this possessive:

Honda does not have its own affiliated parts makers and procures necessary parts mainly from Toyota-affiliated makers. Such Toyota-affiliated parts makers as Denso and Aisin Seiki Co., Ltd. have been supplying parts to Honda and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. As a result, production costs for the parts went down, consequently making it possible for Toyota to buy parts at lower prices. There was an indication that Toyota was encouraging its affiliated parts makers to sell their products to other automakers also. "There was ... a time when we were told to sell as much parts as possible to other carmakers, except for Nissan," one of the Toyota-affiliated companies said.

And now, apparently, except for Hyundai.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:31 PM)
The great wheel hunt

The old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," isn't a curse and isn't Chinese, and probably isn't that old either, so I recommend you replace it with the threat of something more specifically horrible, like "May you go shopping for used cars."

I mentioned earlier that I would like to get another 626 from the same general time period, 2000 through 2002, but inasmuch as this was not a particularly popular car, there aren't a lot of them around, and the ones around town are dubious at best. (CARFAX is your friend; I fed them the VINs for three local cars, and each and every one of them had some derogatory information: one of them had actually been wrecked and rebuilt.)

The pickings are somewhat better at CarMax, but they move stuff quickly, and I suspect I may have problems meeting my self-imposed deadline of Tuesday afternoon. The following alternate models are under consideration if all else fails, assuming they can be had for my desired ceiling price or below:

  • Mazda MPV
  • Mazda Protegé5
  • Infiniti I30
  • Lexus ES300
  • Acura 3.2TL

Of those five, I think I'd prefer the Acura. Oddly, Honda Accords of the same vintage don't seem to be appreciably less expensive, even the four-cylinder models.

Curious CarMax fact: Sales personnel receive a fixed commission on each sale regardless of the dollar amount except in California, where apparently this sort of forced egalitarianism is illegal. (California is also the place where your 60,000-mile timing-belt replacement occurs at 105,000 miles, because the Assembly hath so decreed.)

Addendum, 8 pm: I found the VIN for Molly, my previous 626, traded away in 2000, and on an impulse, fed it to CARFAX. Last item:

Accident Reported in Cowley County [KS]
Vehicle involved in crash with an animal

Now I'm thoroughly spooked.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:43 PM)
19 June 2006
Six cylinders, no waiting

Infiniti I30

Traveling Companion Data Sheet

Name: Gwendolyn
Height: 56.5 inches    Length: 193.7 inches
Weight: 3342 lb    Wheelbase: 108.3 inches
Age: Six and a half    Birthplace: Oppama, Japan
Turn-ons: Tight turns, long yellow lights, sort-of-toplessness
Turnoffs: Cheap gas, long red lights, people who treat me like some ordinary Nissan
Power curve: 227 hp @ 6400 rpm; 217 ft-lbs @ 4000 rpm
Thirst: 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway
Best feature: Almost pathological cleanliness

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:08 PM)
20 June 2006
After 53 miles

Test drives can tell you some things, but not everything, so some of yesterday evening was devoted to putting Gwendolyn through her paces.

Objectively, this car isn't screamingly fast sub-nine-second 0-to-60 runs aren't all that remarkable but when you're used to the eleven-second range at best, somewhere in the middle eights seems amazing. I will have to relearn my usual tip-into-the-throttle technique. Also, with this many ponies, there's a theoretical risk of torque steer, though I was unable to produce more than a perfunctory tug at the wheel.

Nissan was maligned for sticking a beam axle at the back of this thing instead of a proper independent rear suspension, but it took some seriously bumpy curves to make it lose its composure, and then only for the slightest of moments. Still, the 626, with irs, is slightly better, though the suspension tuning (after '99, anyway) is way stiffer than Infiniti's and a lot of bumps that would get your attention in a 626 are smothered in an I30.

In terms of transient response, they seem about equal, though the tires are at least as much a factor as the cars themselves: Gwendolyn runs on BFGoodrich Touring T/As; Sandy wore Dunlop SP A2 Sport Pluses. I am thinking of switching to the Dunlops when the BFGs wear out, which should take a while since they still have rather a lot of tread left. Gwen takes a 215/55R16, which unfortunately costs about 20 percent more than Sandy's 205/60R15.

This was my first experience with Nissan's RE4F04B transmission. It's slicker, and reputedly less unreliable, than any automatic Mazda put in a 626, but its wisdom is just as questionable; certain combinations of throttle position and engine speed will give it a brief case of WTF? The 626, by general agreement, was far happier with a stick anyway; Infiniti didn't offer one for this model year.

Potential difficulties: the aforementioned Right Now throttle response; tach and speedo are reversed compared to the 626; I still think Bose audio is overrated; speedo reads to an implausible 160 mph. (Top speed is around 130, which is all you'd want to do on H-rated tires anyway; I have yet to hit 80.)

Still, this is not a heck of a lot to complain about, and the car is almost deathly quiet inside; I panicked for a moment after filling the tank, thinking it had failed to start. It hadn't. This will never happen in a 626.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:06 AM)
Pressure points

So I'm dropping back into my armchair here, and off goes one of those damn car alarms that everybody hates and no one pays attention to anymore. No funky Atari noises, though: this is straight classical car horn, staccato.

And eventually it dawns on me where this racket is coming from: my freaking garage.

There's a red button on Gwendolyn's key fob that says PANIC, and, says the manual, if you lean on it for more than half a second, the car whoops and hollers and flashes its lights and generally behaves in a frightening and/or embarrassing manner. I got outside with the key and silenced the poor girl, but I felt like a total idiot.

This is not, incidentally, the key fob that we used for the test drive; that one was a different color and had three buttons instead of four. I had used it yesterday, and noticed that while it worked the doors correctly, it didn't pop the trunk lid. Fine, I thought, it just needs to be reprogrammed. With this thought in mind, I retrieved the official Infiniti fob, the one with the red button, and attempted to establish a learning mode. It did not work. The third button on this nonstandard remote had an unrecognizable symbol; thinking that maybe it was required to acknowledge the learning signal, I promptly pushed it.

And Gwendolyn started with a flash of her lights and the usual Vroom.

Being no fan of carbon monoxide, I sprang to open the garage door, then inserted the key to shut her off. No luck; I had to hit that mystery button once more.

I have since identified the odd fob as a product of Avital, though they make dozens of these critters and I couldn't tell you which one this is without downloading all their PDFs, not all of which have actual photos, and it's probably not a current model anyway.

I called the one Infiniti dealer in town. "Can the Panic function be disabled, either internally or by reprogramming the fob?" It can't, at least on an I30; there are ways to do it on some later models, and anyway, whoever heard of someone hitting the Panic button accidentally?

So add this to the learning curve: don't schlep the car keys around the house. If nothing else, it's a good argument for not wearing pants. (We'll discuss seat heaters some other time.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:16 PM)
22 June 2006
Leather-lined money pits

I was looking for something else at the time and happened upon this; it seems just as pertinent. From the summer of '03, Doc Searls warns against hyperexpensive automotive options:

The Active Suspension was a brilliant innovation. Developed for Formula One racecars, it suspends the car on four electronically controlled "actuators" instead of the usual springs and shock absorbers. When you turn hard, the body doesn't lean; and when you hit the brakes, the nose doesn't dive. Bumps leave no memory in the springs, because the system soaks bumps up and forgets they happened.

It was a magnificent design, a true innovation, and a big selling point that failed to sell because it also added $5000 to the sticker price of the car, and most drivers failed to notice the difference in ordinary conditions. (One review of a basic [Infiniti] Q[45] in 1990 noted that the car could "outmaneuver a Miata." So it wasn't like handling was a problem without the fancy suspension.

When we bought the '92 new, we managed to get an "a" for the price of the base model. This seemed like a bargain at the time, even though we knew the fluid-driven active suspension system sapped a bit of engine energy (as does, say, air conditioning) and lowered gas mileage a bit. (The mother would get to 60mph in 6.7 seconds and had a governor that held top speed to "just" 150mph.)

Then we discovered, when the actuators wore out at 110k miles, that they each cost more than $1200. Just for parts. Finally, at 210k miles, something went wrong with the fluid drive for the suspension system, which is deeply involved with the engine, at about the same time as the actuators surely needed replacing again. Things went so wrong, in fact, that the Active Suspension system killed the engine completely: it seized up. So we sold the car to a guy who loves old Infinitis for about the price of one actuator. A shame because we loved that car.

Nissan had long since abandoned this technology by the time they got around to building the I30 I just bought, but there is still plenty of reason to be fearful of tricky/spendy stuff especially since it took me 24 hours to figure out that I had seat heaters, fercryingoutloud.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:52 PM)
23 June 2006
Cabin pressure

The Germans are getting their keisters kicked in the new J. D. Power Initial Quality Survey, and it's not because the cars are falling apart. (That comes later.) They're just incomprehensible:

It turns out that this year's IQS factored in a whole new set of data on design flaws, which included the usability of each car's cabin technology. And it will come as little surprise to those who have spent hours wrangling with the iDrive and COMAND (BMW and Mercedes's driver interfaces, respectively) that the results show the integration of many advanced technology systems leaving quite a bit to be desired. In the list of the "most troublesome design failure problems," BMW drivers identified the "difficult to use" and "poorly located" front audio and entertainment system as their number one complaint. Third on their list was the location and usability of the Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) system, with the inability of the voice-recognition system to understand commands and the placement and usability of cup holders rounding out the list of top five gripes. For Mercedes drivers, the top five complaints were excessive brake dust; a poorly located and difficult-to-use clock; poor visibility/usability of HVAC controls; troublesome cruise-control systems; and issues with usability and lack of accurate information of the navigation system. In previous IQS studies, which focused mainly on engineering defects and malfunctions, most of these complaints would not have registered.

Because I can, the major ergonomic failures of my last three cars:

Molly, 1993 Mazda 626:

  • Cupholders at the base of the center stack, and God help you if you have to use the shifter for anything.
  • What's more, the gripping surface, as it were, was barely a quarter-inch high, meaning that any turn whatsoever was enough to knock over your Not-So-Big Gulp.
  • Two tiny horn buttons at 3 and 9 o'clock. Not intuitive.

Sandy, 2000 Mazda 626:

  • If you got the automatic, you get no shift indicator on the dash; you're always looking down at the lever to shift.
  • Hand brake on the left side of the shifter serves as an unwanted seat bolster.
  • Weird door opening means almost everyone has to duck to get in.

Gwendolyn, 2000 Infiniti I30:

  • The volume knob for the Bose stereo and the temperature control for the HVAC are identical and too close together.
  • The "electro-luminescent" instrument display is beautiful, but its variability means that you can't tell by looking when you've left the lights on which, if you're using the Auto headlight switch, you inevitably will.
  • The two dash-top tweeters seem to be positioned strangely, especially for a Bose system; there's little or no reflection back to the seating area.

Minor difficulties, perhaps. Still, I have to agree with the CNET guy:

[T]he message to the designers is clear: If you're going to install technology to make drivers' lives easier, start by making it easy to use.

At the very least.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:19 AM)
24 June 2006
Take that!

Right here, last week:

As a temporary measure, I am sliding around town in a Dodge Stratus SXT in Frigidaire White. Despite the jumble of letters, this is the bottom-feeder of the line, with a nothing-special four-banger driving the front wheels. It's an acceptable grocery-getter, but not the least bit amusing to drive.

This week in Auburn Hills:

Chrysler officials say a lot of conversations have taken place about whether to keep the Sebring name [for the 2007 model]. "In the end, we felt the convertible has given the name good equity, and the racing origin of the name works well too," said one Chrysler honcho at the unveiling. The company is betting that the new design and some compelling advertising around the car will make it a success.

Not so for the Dodge Stratus. When that car debuts, it will have a new name. The Stratus had no equity with anyone, it turns out, and no positive imagery.

On the other hand, it outlasted the other Mopar "cloud cars" Chrysler Cirrus, Plymouth Breeze.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:30 AM)
How depressing is this?

Google lists 1,020,000 results for what do you do if you hit a deer on the highway, and suddenly I'm #10.

Actually, it's almost exactly the same thing you'd do if you were trying to dodge suicidal 200-pound chipmunks on meth, to quote #5.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:33 PM)
26 June 2006
This I can appreciate

I know this reaction:

I've had the new car for two days. Do I like it? Yes!

I miss the Little Girl (the Escort ZX2) because she was so good and reliable for so long, but the ragtop really is stealing my heart. Good weather is part of that, I am sure, but?

I think I'm going to like my Sammy (Samantha the Sebring). Now I just need to find a reasonable (ha-ha) blonde for the passenger seat. Ah, well.

Six days and a little over 200 miles with Gwendolyn so far. I wouldn't call her a two-fisted drinker, exactly: maybe 1.3, 1.4 fists. Of course, this could just be due to some quirk in Japanese fuel-gauge mechanisms that causes them to plummet during the first half of their range and then slow down a bit as the bottom approaches. And if this seems to run counter to the laws of physics, well, why do we buy these things in the first place, if not to circumvent our limitations as we know them?

Oh, and "reasonable blondes" do exist, though the chance of seeing one sitting next to me is essentially nil.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:23 AM)
28 June 2006
Swirling controversy

The title gives this one away:

Holy Vortex Valve! Dealership Retrofits Hummers with Dubious Mileage Booster

How dubious is it?

The modification uses a device manufactured by Air Synergy Labs Inc., one of hundreds of aftermarket parts companies across the country that are using homegrown methods to try to boost fuel efficiency. Spencer Robley, chairman and president of the Las Vegas-based company says his company's product which it calls a "Vortex Valve" can help drivers increase fuel efficiency as much as 30%, though he concedes there's no official verification of that claim. "Federal, state, local [government agencies], nobody will certify anything that has to do with us," Mr. Robley says. "Nobody wants to hang their hat on it and certify anything that has to do with mileage." The company says it has sold 120,000 valves since they launched the product in 1998; the Detroit area stores are the first car dealers to feature it.

But this is what gets me:

[T]he promotion has helped ignite H2 and H3 sales at ... two Detroit area locations, says Gary Krupa, general manager of Hummer of Novi. The dealerships are charging customers $189.95 for the "Mileage Maximizer." Mr. Krupa says they sold about a dozen modified Hummers in the first three weeks of the promotion. The chain is now considering modifying vehicles at other Detroit-area Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge stores it owns "within the next month or so," according to Russ Reimer, the service director who runs the service shops at both Hummer dealerships.

I spoke with an actual Vortex user, and he says the retail price of this contraption is around seventy bucks. (Ah, dealer markups.) He also says he's getting 1.5 to 2 mpg better from his aircraft carrier Chevy Avalanche.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:11 AM)
Non-lateral movement

In last week's Vent I set about to describe the thought processes that led up to Gwendolyn's arrival in my garage, and I think I did a creditable job of it, but there was one question I failed to anticipate, and I'm taking it on now: "Did you ever consider going down a class or two, back a year or two, or otherwise finding yourself something that could have been completely paid for by the insurance settlement?"

The answer is no, and the reason is this: I didn't want to be reminded, every time I got into the darn thing, of what I'd lost. Had I found another suitable 626, I would have wanted at least the Premium package, and maybe even the V6; going sideways and one level (or so) up might have cost me even more, but it keeps me out of yearn mode.

Perhaps I should thank Dr. Jan for planting the Lexus notion in my head to begin with; absurd as it sounded, it became more defensible the more I thought about it.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:07 PM)
29 June 2006
VQ very much

I'd seen some pieces like this, and they'd always tripped the Hyperbole Alert: yeah, gearheads rave about engines, but that's what they're supposed to do. So I might not have noticed something along these lines:

How else to describe the VQ but pre-eminent? The inherent excellence of this design absolutely stunned us and many of Nissan's competitors when launched for the '95 model year, and the same basic engine today still stands out from a growing cadre of sophisticated V-6 engines.

The VQ's uncanny refinement and lack of vibration always seemed practically supernatural; its unrivaled noise, vibration and harshness characteristics are a large contributor to the VQ V-6's insouciant, exuberant power delivery.

I'd owned one V-6 prior to this year. It wore a blue oval, and was a nice little torque monster when it wasn't chewing on its head gaskets. Still, this was 1980s technology, and I'd had no experience with any contemporary bent six.

This afternoon I'm climbing onto one of this state's infamously-short onramps. Having mostly gotten out of the Sandy-era habit of flooring it and hanging on, I was doing a sedate fifty-five or so as the merge area began, when a truck (no trailer) which had been sandbagging it in the slow lane decided it was going too slow after all.

Two things I knew:

  • Diesels don't pick up speed all that fast;
  • But I'd still better get the lead out while I still can.

"What would Sandy do?" flashed into my head, and I gave the loud pedal a shove, though not quite enough of one to hit the floorboards. The expected noise burst didn't. I checked the left-side mirror for the truck which wasn't there anymore.

And then it appeared behind me. Way behind me. Gauge check: revs, 5400 or so; speed, 85 mph. Elapsed time: seemingly hardly any.

I eased back on the pedal and slid into the left lane: 80, 75, 70, back to some semblance of normal; it was as though nothing had happened.

Sandy, bless her little four-cylinder heart, would have been winded but happy: "Let's do it again later." Gwendolyn didn't even break into a sweat: "You need anything else while I'm up?"

If you're any good, and I was fairly decent at it, you can do some wondrous things with an underpowered car: it's simply a matter of knowing its limitations and being willing to work right up to the edge of them. While I've about figured Gwendolyn's chassis limits she is a front-driver, after all, and there's no button on the dash to suspend the laws of physics I suspect all that insouciance and exuberance comes at speeds inadvisable at rush hour.

There is, of course, plenty of time to get acquainted, but for now, I think we're going to get along just fine. A little serenity is good for the soul.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:16 PM)
30 June 2006
Les Cars

Kirk Kerkorian, who holds just under 10 percent of the outstanding shares of General Motors, has proposed that the General join forces with French automaker Renault and its Japanese affiliate Nissan.

This is, of course, the perfect time for such a deal, with Renault absent from the US market entirely and Nissan wrestling with quality-control issues and the relocation of its North American headquarters from the West Coast to Tennessee.

Meanwhile in Detroit, GM chair Rick Wagoner is Googling for "le mot de Cambronne".

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:05 PM)
1 July 2006
Just a sip or two

Your friendly neighborhood governmental types say you should never, ever top off your tank, and for the last few years, I have evolved something of a routine: I stop when the pump clicks off, then squeeze in enough to round the price up to the next five cents. Assuming the pumps are calibrated to stop at more or less the same place, and given the fact that a nickel won't buy much gas, I can generally assume that I've reached an acceptable degree of tankfulness, if that's a word, and my gas-mileage computations will benefit, if not from guaranteed accuracy, at least a diminished degree of inaccuracy.

I bought Gwendolyn her first tankful on Day One, observing this protocol, and subsequently watched the gauge with some concern:

I wouldn't call her a two-fisted drinker, exactly: maybe 1.3, 1.4 fists. Of course, this could just be due to some quirk in Japanese fuel-gauge mechanisms that causes them to plummet during the first half of their range and then slow down a bit as the bottom approaches.

Which was a guess, nothing more. However, I filled up last night as the gauge grazed the one-quarter mark. (The 91-octane stuff she prefers was still under three bucks, albeit by a mere tenth of a cent.)

The owner's manual claims a fuel-tank capacity of 18½ gallons or 70 liters; the online service manual at Alldata says, again, 70 liters. The conversion factor is exact enough. The precious fuelstuffs flowed in, dollar by dollar, and then: click. I stared in disbelief at the pump. This can't possibly be correct, I thought: still, the click was indisputable. I went up five cents, then ten, finally fifteen, and quit.

Apparently at the one-quarter mark, Gwendolyn had used just under 10.6 of her allotted 18.5 gallons, 57 percent rather than the expected 75, suggesting that her gas gauge is even more alarmist than I ever imagined. I started her up, and the needle climbed to pretty much where it had last time, a needle's width above the F.

And those 10.6 gallons propelled her 263.7 miles, which means that through my usual around-town driving cycle, she averaged 24.9 miles per gallon.

I don't believe it either. Late June, A/C running more or less non-stop, the odd burst of speed, and still: twenty-four point nine.

Factoring out the World Tours, Sandy's average was twenty-three point nine and she weighed 350 lb less and had something like three-fifths the horsepower.

Okay, smaller engine works that much harder. I understand that. Still, I have to admit that when I pulled into the station, I was thinking "If I can just get 19, I'll be happy."

And I'm thinking next time I might wait until the scary orange low-fuel light comes on.

(EPA numbers are here.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:32 AM)
3 July 2006

Twenty-two dollars (and, says the application form, a four-month wait) gets you a vanity plate in Oklahoma. Not that you have that many options:

  • Seven characters.
  • No punctuation other than hyphen (one) and space.
  • "Any special plate request deemed to be offensive to the general public will not be issued."

I had thought up a good one for a previous car, but never got around to applying for it: DCXXVI. No doubt this is due to a certain unwillingness to be conspicuous: drawing attention to one's vehicle is usually not a good idea, unless you're up to your eyeballs in fog and if you are, a twelve-by-six metal rectangle isn't going to be much use anyway.

Still, the Topic Jar is about depleted, so if you'd like to recommend a plate that would be suitable for a 2000 Infiniti I30 with a whale-tail spoiler of dubious utility, I'm listening.

(The Sooner State, incidentally, also offers a series of environmental and wildlife-conservation plates; one of the latter includes an image of a deer. This plate is not being considered under any circumstances.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:57 AM)
7 July 2006
Checkered Flag of Death

Do people attend auto races, or watch them on television, in the hopes of seeing a crash?

The most reasonable answer, I suppose, is that some of us do, but most of us probably don't.

Of course, we're generally watching NASCAR here in the States; the dynamics may well be different in, say, Formula 1.

And, while we're on the subject of crashing, the official supplier of engine-control systems for the 2008 F1 season will be ... Microsoft.

Now they'll be able to crash without ever leaving the starting line.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:46 AM)
8 July 2006
A thirty-thousand-dollar child

Gwendolyn (you met her here) is my first-ever Infiniti, and while there's plenty of data, some of it actually verifiable, floating around on the Net, she is, after all, six years old, more than a generation in automotive terms, and I decided I'd like to find some data from the time she was born, just for historical perspective.

By way of eBay, I snagged the October 1999 issue of Car and Driver, which I'd read as a subscription copy when it was new and subsequently sent to the shredder. The issue contains a one-page "minitest" of the 2000 I30 and a six-page ad by Infiniti to promote the car. The ad, of course, is just this side of hilarious:

If you were designing a new luxury car, how would you make it stand apart from the crowd? Would you give it the most powerful V6 engine in its class? Would you create the most spacious cabin in its class? Maybe you'd offer luxury touches and a level of ingenuity that you couldn't find anywhere else. Surely, laying claim to any one of these achievements would set you apart from today's crowd of luxury automobiles. Imagine how special you'd be if you could claim all of them.

As noted, I don't call her Shirley. The Infiniti tag from those days "Own one and you'll understand" is reminiscent of the old Packard boast "Ask the man who owns one," but not particularly precise; whatever you might think of Mazda's "Zoom Zoom" business, at least you knew what they were selling you.

The C/D testers gave the car a mixed review "in its class": "When considered against its competitors, the I30 has a fine combination of style, luxury, and adequate performance." Of course, these guys are hotshoes by trade 8.3 seconds from zero to sixty seems like an eternity to them and they seemed disappointed that the 2000 version, wholly new, didn't represent a quantum leap in performance over the previous generation. (They got seven seconds out of a Maxima with the same engine, but it had a stick shift.) And they complained about the forest of petroboard:

The faux wood panels on the doors bend and curve in a way that's implausible for real wood to bend, clearly revealing their unnatural origins.

I turned back to the ad, and the interior shot revealed the Awful Truth: the previous owner had actually ordered extra fake wood. In the photo, synthoplanking appears only on the doors and the console; Gwendolyn's wearing the stuff all the way up to her air vents.

I will not allow myself to be perturbed by this; I learned, many years before, that you never, ever tell a woman she's wearing too much makeup, unless you're convinced she's doing Kabuki on the side. (What happens, of course, is that she leaves it all off one day, and you look at her stupidly and say "What did you do to yourself?") Besides, there's a road to watch.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:01 PM)
9 July 2006
From our Road Scholars

The Mutt-Man has suggested I give Gwendolyn a proper break-in on this road in Bolivia. It would be simpler just to push her onto the BNSF tracks and run like hell.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, it's the Blessing of the Police Vehicles, which appear to be the Altis variant of the Toyota Corolla, more closely akin to the North American version of the Corolla than to the standard Asian car. (The Philippine National Police apparently just acquired these vehicles under a mandate from the President to step up the war on local insurgents.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:25 PM)
12 July 2006
Another chapter in the Octagon soap

We got your globalization right here, pal: the latest incarnation of the classic British sports car will be built by the Chinese in Oklahoma.

Nanjing Automobile Group, which wound up owning the MG brand after the collapse of UK-based MG Rover, has announced plans to assemble MG TF coupes at a new plant to be built in Ardmore next year. Nanjing will also reactivate a British factory to build the roadster version of the TF, and will build home-market cars in China. Production is expect to begin in the fall of 2008.

Duke T. Hale has been appointed president and CEO of MG North America/Europe, which will be based in Oklahoma City. I'd say he's got his work cut out for him.

TF, incidentally, is a series name from MG's past: the original TF, a repository of 1930s technology, was built from 1953 through 1955, when it was replaced by the shockingly-modern MGA. The new TF will look like this.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:35 AM)
13 July 2006
The change, they are a-timin'

Valvoline asked a bunch of ASE-certified auto techs when they thought you should have your oil changed, and the majority of them said every 3000 miles, exactly what you'd expect them to say.

On one level, this is no more persuasive than, say, the Chick-fil-A cows asking you to "eat mor chikin"; on the other hand, erring on the side of caution, while it has its price, is perhaps less likely to lead to grief than erring on the side of "Maybe later."

Me, I drive about 10,000 miles a year, and generally get three oil changes during that year:

  1. Right before the World Tour (2750 miles).
  2. Right after the World Tour (7250 miles).
  3. Halfway between World Yours (10,000 miles).

In practice, this means one in June, one in July, and one in December or January. This has worked rather well for me for several years. Infiniti recommends 3750 miles for Gwendolyn, which works out to three in 11,250 miles, which is, I think, sufficiently close to my own regimen. (On the other hand, I think leaving spark plugs, even platinum-tipped spark plugs, in an engine for 105,000 miles is insane.)

I might also mention that motor oil is a hot, nasty fluid, which means that it might be advisable to dress before removing the drain plug.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:54 PM)
14 July 2006
Looking for Space

Meet CarSpace, which is, well, just about what you think it is: an automotive variation on the MySpace theme, produced by the Edmunds folks.

I should ask them if everyone gets Tom Magliozzi as first friend.

(Disclosure: I have a page at CarSpace, though I've done nothing with it. Yet.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:17 AM)
15 July 2006
Option package D

I have yet to figure out every last button on Gwendolyn's instrument panel, so naturally I'd think that this is a question to ponder:

In addition to more and more horsepower, automobile manufacturers are seemingly locked in a desperate struggle to load their vehicles up with more and more, well, stuff. Supposedly to help you drive better. After all, modern supercars are essentially porky Le Mans racers with power windows. But which feature is the most oversold, the most useless? Which does nothing but fill promotional material and empty your wallet?

I'm pretty sure that you can make some kind of case for just about any automotive feature whatever, but this comment, I think, speaks volumes:

Most useless feature in a car? Based on my experience driving in Massachusetts, I would say that it's the lever mounted on the steering column that makes a clicking sound when you press it down or up. It also causes a light to blink on and off. No one ever uses it.

It's occasionally used in Oklahoma, though I suspect mostly for its decorative value.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:10 AM)
Gwendolyn's birth certificate

I have now found Gwendolyn's Monroney sticker, which explains rather a lot, actually.

I had previously determined (via Alldata) that there was a midyear update to the 2000 I30, in which side air bags (mounted in the front seats) were made standard; based on the VIN, I assumed that this car was late enough to include this update, and the sticker confirms. The base price remained unchanged from early-year advertising: $29,465 plus $525 destination charge = $29,990.

Options: splash guards ($109), heated seats and heated outside mirrors ($420). The total was therefore $30,519. However, this does not include the rear spoiler and the gold pinstriping, which presumably were installed by the dealer whoever that was. (The sticker indicates one dealership, the [original] title another, which is no big deal; my previous car was originally shipped to the Dallas 'burbs before it was actually purchased from an Oklahoma dealer.)

Oh, and there was a note from a fellow at Quality Assurance at Oppama, explaining that they'd put seven miles on the car for testing purposes.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:02 PM)
17 July 2006
Higher-quality distractions

DaimlerChrysler is planning this for in-dash entertainment:

Its features include an AM/FM radio, CD/DVD player, embedded Sirius satellite radio with real-time traffic info, [a] 20GB HD, a USB jack, line-in jack, two audio outputs, Bluetooth hands-free calling and a 6.5-inch touchscreen with voice control.

The 20GB HD itself hold[s] all of the navigation software, which precludes the need for a dedicated DVD drive like most nav systems use. It also stores about a 1GB of system software (think operating system) and what's called a Gracenote lookup engine. Since you'll be able to rip CDs into the car's hard drive right on the spot, the Gracenote software is what will generate the artist, title and track information from a database of over 4 million CDs. Aside from ripping CDs directly, there's also a USB on the lower left side of the head unit that allows music and pictures to be transferred from a USB flash drive. There's room for around 1,600 songs to be uploaded depending on their file size.

And which Mercedes-Benz will be getting this package first?

You are wrong, gullwing breath. This system will be offered in the middle-market Chrysler Sebring, perhaps as early as this fall.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:27 AM)
25 July 2006
Another reason to buy American

The Singapore-based carrier Cougar Ace, bound for North America, is taking on water 200 miles south of the Aleutians and is listing about eighty degrees, standing slightly less upright than Foster Brooks.

The crew, says Jalopnik, has been picked up by air and flown to safety, but the 4800 motor vehicles on board will likely be plunged into the sea, never to be seen again, unless SpongeBob SquarePants either gets his driver's license or becomes a seller on eBay Motors, in which case watch for sudden deals on Mazdas.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:36 PM)
30 July 2006
Adjustment period

I've had six weeks (and 1750 miles) to get acquainted with Gwendolyn, and while she's certainly worthy, there are a few things I miss about her predecessor:

  • The infamous oscillating center air vents, which, while perhaps goofy-looking, will blow for hours without actually turning your right arm into gelato.
  • The two-stage console box: you can stuff small things in the lid, or bigger things below it.
  • The one-swipe wiper position, which does a single pass and then shuts off. Very useful if a truck passes you during a period of drizzle.

But mostly, I miss Sandy's rambunctiousness: she wasn't all that fast, and she had more body roll than H.M.S. Pinafore, but she never, ever gave off the impression that she couldn't do something, even if the laws of physics guaranteed that she couldn't.

That said, there are some things that Gwendolyn does better:

  • Gets out of her own way. (We're talking a three-second difference from zero to sixty.)
  • Smaller blind spots. The sightlines on this car are superb.
  • Surprisingly, a tighter turning circle.

Still to be compared: relative grip. I think, though, this will have to wait until the next set of tires, as Sandy's Dunlops were way stickier than Gwendolyn's current BFGs. The local Infiniti store recommends Bridgestone's top-line Turanzas, but I think I may buy the Dunlops anyway, since they're (1) a known quantity and (2) about $125 less for a set of four.

And there's a vestige of Impostor Syndrome, the feeling that I, a full-fledged plebe, don't have any business wheeling around town in a luxoboat, even one that's six years old. I can report that the children were way too impressed with these wheels; I had to remind them that after all, it's a freaking Nissan, and it's not like I'm suddenly movin' on up or anything. (They, in turn, will be happy to point out that there were plenty of hotel rooms in the area that didn't cost a hundred bucks a night.)

But there are no regrets, really. I don't tear up when I see a 626 on the road. I just wish it hadn't had to end the way it did.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:12 PM)
1 August 2006
Gimme back my keys

A writer for the Seattle Weekly, as an experiment, gives up his car:

[T]he economics of my decision made sense: Gasoline was roaring toward $3 a gallon, the useless monorail tax was still in place, and I only drove maybe 150 miles a month. When you factored in insurance (a rip-off even with my clean driving record), gasoline, and such, I was paying almost $1 a mile to have a car that was essentially used to run errands outside the city's main core and to visit friends who lived in Lake City and Bellevue and elsewhere away from my usual Capitol Hill haunts. And if I went out and bought a decent used car, I'd be looking at maybe $100 to $200 a month in car payments.

So I decided to rely on a mix of Metro buses and cabs and walking. I wanted to see how my work and social life would hold up. Besides, the Seattle liberal paradigm is that we should all be like Bus Chick a really cute former Microsoftie who takes Metro everywhere and saves the Earth and honors the Kyoto Accords and tells President Bush and Chevron to stuff it.

I am here to tell you at the liberal paradigm is, in this respect, an abysmal failure. Or at least it was for me.

Bicycle, you say? Out of the question:

I have many years of bicycling (commuting by bike, even) under my belt and after all those years, plus years of running three miles day (plus years of hockey and weight-lifting), my knees are toast. Nothing will get you off a bike faster that hearing your knees click and pop while you are riding and having them lock up on you from time to time.

Disclosure: I got to that point without running three miles a day.

But why was this experiment such a tremendous flop?

My social life went down the tubes. If a friend of mine lived outside of Capitol Hill, downtown, Belltown, the ID, or Pioneer Square, I was screwed. I have a lot of friends who don't live in those places, and suddenly I wasn't being invited to pop over to a friend's house for impromptu barbeques and parties. That sucked. And if I needed to run an errand to, say, Best Buy at Northgate, it would take an hour-plus in each direction to get there and with Metro's schedules, don't try that in the evening. Besides, you cannot carry more than a couple of shopping bags on Metro.

Not having a car got in the way of work, as well. I am the kind of reporter who prefers to meet people in person, if possible, and I suddenly had to resort to doing a lot of phone interviews unless I did a lot of planning for taking transit and giving up half an afternoon for a half-hour interview. There were also public meetings I wasn't able to attend, either, all of a sudden unless they happened to be downtown or somewhere close by.

Cabs weren't much of a solution. Anytime you pop into a cab in this city, it seems to cost about $15 by the time you tip the driver and that's just around the central core of the city. That didn't make much economic sense.

And so he's back behind the wheel:

After two weeks of being back in the driver's seat, I am happy to report that I am visiting friends I haven't seen in ages, getting shopping done that I'd put off, and popping around the outer reaches of Seattle to do interviews in person. Even better: I can shoot down to White Center and the Rainier Valley to get really good Mexican food anytime the mood strikes. I can swing down to the ID to get great Chinese food without having to make an entire evening out of the trip. My social life is no longer restricted to near-Capitol Hill environs. That's great and likely also an improvement for Capitol Hill's social whirl as well.

I point all this out because, like it or not, I am tied to cars. The Ron Sims/Greg Nickels/urban planning wonk wet dream of getting Seattleites out of their cars and onto the buses is unworkable, in my opinion. At least in 2006.

You'd probably stand a better chance of getting Seattleites onto a train, if not necessarily the monorail. It might cost more than, say, a basketball team, but it might actually get some public support. And soon-to-be-former Oklahoma Congressman Ernest Istook, who might be looking for work as a transportation consultant in '07, is a big fan of rail as long as it's not in Oklahoma.

(Via Sound Politics.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:15 AM)
Paying through the nose

Jerry Reed, in "Lord, Mr. Ford" (1973):

Well, I figured it up and over a period of time
This four thousand dollar car of mine
Costs fourteen thousand dollars and ninety-nine cents.

In the previous article, a Seattle Weekly writer quoted the cost of driving around town at "almost $1 per mile." This got me thinking about how much I've been paying. Of course, the driver isn't the only person who incurs costs when a motor vehicle is operated, but since he didn't quantify those, neither will I.

So here are the numbers, as best as I can determine them, from my previous car, since its books are effectively closed at this time:

Selling price including destination charge: $20,100
Trade-in less amount upside down: ($2,600)
Rebate: ($2,000)
Gap insurance and similar things: $1,000
Finance charge (60 months): $6,800
Total purchase price: $23,300
Less salvage value: ($6,100)
Net cost of vehicle itself: $17,200

Taxes and licenses (six years): $1,100
Insurance: $7,400
Gasoline (@ 24 mpg, average 2.00/gal): $4,700
Repairs and maintenance: $2,300
Miscellaneous expenses (parking, etc.): $200
Total: $15,700

Total expenditures: $32,900
Number of miles driven: 55,700
Expense per mile: 59 cents

The painful part, of course, was remembering that gas was cheap enough five or six years ago to keep the overall average for the period right around two bucks despite today's $3-ish numbers. Had I paid three dollars a gallon for the entire period, it would have added a little more than four cents per mile to the total.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:16 AM)
3 August 2006
The coming of the pod people

Apple, says Autoblog, has contracted with GM, Ford, and Ford's Japanese affiliate Mazda to provide iPod access to OEM audio systems beginning in 2007.

The new services will allow use of the OEM head unit to control volume and such, and will permit charging the iPod's battery in the car.

GM will offer the iPod jack (or whatever it turns out to be) in all its US models; Mazda will implement it worldwide; Ford's plans are still up in the air.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:18 PM)
4 August 2006
Tripping the joy buzzer

"How do you know," someone once asked, "if you're really leading the life you wanted to lead?"

Hard to say, but I think one irreducible component is being able to get away with crap like this:

I'm sitting at my desk when, out of the blue, it hits me: I need a burger. Not just any burger, mind you, an In-N-Out burger. The West Coast chain is the purveyor of cheap, fresh, immensely amazing burgers. No problem, right? Get up, go out the door, go to lunch.

Sure. Except for the fact that [our] editorial office is in Michigan, and the West Coast is, well, way out west. I check the Internet: the closest In-N-Out is in Prescott, Arizona.

Yep, tasty burger. I stare at In-N-Out's Web site. My eyes lose focus for a second.

I call my friend Jeff Diehl. Jeff lives in Chicago; Chicago is on the way. That's good, because I can't drive 1965 miles nonstop by myself. I ask Jeff to come with me, simultaneously glancing over at the car sign-out board. The keys to a 505-hp Chevrolet Corvette Z06 dangle from one of its hooks. I mention this to Jeff; he gets silent for a moment. Then he asks when we're leaving.

I grab the keys from the board and tell the rest of the staff I'm going out for lunch.

That's Sam Smith of Automobile Magazine, and the whole sordid story thirty-three hours worth is in the September issue.

Oh, and then they had to drive back home.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:12 AM)
Those damned deer

They're bad enough on country roads when you're zipping along at 65 mph, but when they show up on a racetrack:

Champ Car driver Cristiano da Matta was seriously injured yesterday when he collided with a deer that had wandered onto the track during a practice session at Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI. The unconscious da Matta suffered head injuries and was medevaced to Theda Clark Medical Center.

A CT scan showed that he had a subdural hematoma, and emergency surgery was performed to remove it.

Champ Cars top out over 200 mph, which means that da Matta took probably ten times the hit I took from Bambi earlier this summer. Poor fellow.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:29 PM)
5 August 2006
Waiting 'round the Benz

Julie Bisbee reports in the Oklahoman:

As Oklahoma's per capita income grows, consumer's tastes are getting a little richer. Luxury car dealers in the metro area are seeing an increase in interest in their cars, and dealerships are adding more lines to appeal to consumers who are willing to plunk down more than $20,000 for a car.

I, of course, roared at this. Last time I went shopping for a new car, I bought a distinctly non-luxe make in the lowest trim level offered, and the sticker was just over twenty grand, and that was six years ago. The average price for a new car varies with who's doing the figuring: Edmunds.com guesses about $27,800, while Car and Driver will not give a "10Best" award to any vehicle costing more than 2.5 times the average, and their cutoff for 2006 was $71,000, which implies an average of $28,400. But even allowing for the fact that most cars (Saturns excepted) are sold at a smidgen below sticker, you'd have to get quite a bit over $20k to get into anything legitimately describable as a "luxury" car.

Inasmuch as I drive an Infiniti these days, I looked at the very bottom of their product line, and I find the G35 sedan with a six-speed stick sells for $31,200; with a five-speed automatic, $31,450. With the cheaper of the two Premium Packages, the wheel/suspension upgrade, and a trunk mat, the price tag rises to $36,280. (This is not that excruciating a price, I suppose; Gwendolyn's sticker, with fewer options, was over $30k, and she's six years old.)

Since one of Ms Bisbee's points was the acquisition of the local Saab franchise by Bob Moore, I went looking for Saab prices, and the 9-2X wagon starts out at a mere $22,990, though most of them, I suspect, are sold with automatic transmissions, which pushes the price to $24,240. And I suspect rather a lot are trimmed to Aero levels, which is four grand higher, knocking on the $30k door.

There remains, of course, the question of what makes a given model, other than mere branding, a "luxury" car in the first place. My own definition calls for higher-than-average performance and greater-than-average creature comforts, though I'd hate to have to quantify the average for either characteristic. For some people, anything other than the barest Point A-to-Point B device might be over the luxury threshold. Consumer Reports, perhaps not wishing to get involved in discussions of this sort, has adopted the term "upscale" for these vehicles.

And a thought experiment comes to mind. Right now, Toyota's "halo" car is the hybrid Prius, which is in sufficient demand to sell at sticker or above. If you ordered everything possible on a Prius, you'd get the sticker up to $30k or thereabouts. Could the Lexus folks jazz these up enough to justify a $35-40k price tag? I'm thinking they could, if only because Lexus customer service is widely considered to be an order of magnitude better than what you'd get from a Toyota store, and maybe that's a "luxury" in itself.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:24 PM)
7 August 2006
Serious service

Alldata offers a subscription service to the vehicle manufacturer's actual service information, including part prices, official labor times, and updated Technical Service Bulletins; I have subscribed to it for my last three cars, and have been known to browse the TSBs for information which may (or may not) subsequently become useful. (Honda/Acura and BMW do not permit this sort of thing, but most other makes do.)

I was reading a TSB for transmission slippage on I30s of Gwendolyn's vintage, and it calls for replacement of a particular solenoid valve. But the first item in the service procedure is this:

1.  Record the radio presets.

Because, of course, you'll lose them when the battery is disconnected, as it must be to change out electrical components.

And the last step is to reprogram those presets. (I guess this is why these luxury brands command such high loyalty.)

Incidentally, Gwendolyn is not showing signs of transmission slippage: I just happened to be going through that part of the TSB list.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:32 AM)
8 August 2006
Fourth gear, hang on tight

Japanese transmission manufacturer Jatco predicts that the four-speed automatic will be gone within a decade, replaced by newer technologies.

The continuously-variable transmission, which has theoretically infinite gears, will probably take over at the low end of the market; I'm thinking that performance vehicles will have automatically-shifted manuals similar to the VW Group's DSG.

Still, the four-cog slushbox lasted quite a while in the marketplace: my last three cars have had four-speed automatics. (Gwendolyn's is from Jatco.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:44 PM)
15 August 2006
Words from the Duke

Edmunds.com's Inside Line gets MG's Duke Hale to sit for a few questions:

What is your sense and do you have any data to support if MG has any brand equity left, particularly after being out of the U.S. since 1980? And if it has any, who is that equity with? Mostly older people?

I have looked at research done by a European-based firm that definitely indicates there is positive equity in North America with the 40-plus crowd. It certainly has more positive equity in Europe, where MGs were sold up until about 10 months ago in the range of 120,000 cars a year. It's been 25-plus years since the MG was sold in North America so people as young as in their late 30s and early 40s still remember the brand. Younger than that, they don't. But look at the Mini Cooper. That was never as strong a brand as MG. I hardly remember the Mini Cooper. But look at what they've done, selling 200,000-plus a year. I think we can learn from Mini on how to not only appeal to the 40-plus crowd, but also how to tap into the 22-40 crowd. We'll tear a page out of Mini's playbook.

Why Oklahoma? General Motors recently closed the state's only assembly plant there.

The opportunity in Oklahoma is immense. The Ardmore Air Park, where we will build the coupe, is a 3000-acre parcel. Some of the land is sovereign Indian state. We are partnered with Mark Nuttle. [Editor's note: Nuttle is manager of the Oklahoma Sovereign Development LLC, which has a joint venture with the Chickasaw Nation to develop the land into an international trade and distribution center. Nanjing would benefit from tax advantages, including property tax exemptions, accelerated tax depreciation and employment tax credits if the tribe purchases 650 or more acres for the Ardmore Airpark and leases it to Nanjing.] Let imagination run and you can think of creative ways that allow the business to be more efficient and profitable to the point that one might be able to build vehicles in Oklahoma nearly as cheaply as China.

There is, of course, a lot more being discussed, but these were the questions I most wanted answered.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:52 PM)
Ninety thousand

Next week Gwendolyn goes in for her 90,000-mile service. I do not expect any change from a $500 bill.

Incidentally, the 99s and earlier are eighty bucks cheaper; they have a fuel-filter replacement, which I don't, but they don't have the cabin air filter to pull, and I do.

I should point out here that Sandy, had she lived, would be pulling in for 60k about now, and that's closer to $800. Then again, she had a timing belt which was due for replacement.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:49 PM)
22 August 2006
Found on road, dying

Charlie Hughes and William Jeanes are two names I know well. Hughes was the president of Mazda during its transformation from an also-ran Japanese nameplate to a recognized purveyor of Zoom Zoom, and Jeanes was perhaps the sanest editor of Car and Driver ever. In their forthcoming book Branding Iron: Branding Lessons from the Meltdown of the US Auto Industry, the guys offer a restructuring plan for Ford that goes way beyond anything Dearborn can possibly imagine. Some of the details:

  • Three brands: mainstream, near-luxury, high-end. Ford, Volvo, Jaguar. Everyone else has got to go. BMW would probably take Land Rover back, and Mazda might well want to be free of blue-oval influence. Aston Martin surely would find a taker. And Lincoln-Mercury? "They spend $300 million a year to flog Lincoln and Mercury, says Hughes, "and what kind of return are they getting on that?"

  • Move out of Dearborn and away from all those people named Ford. Chicago would work.

  • Adopt one standard, companywide: "We build the best cars for the money in any segment you might want."

Ford might actually spin off one of their British marques, but anything beyond that seems unlikely. Still, the people who are eating Detroit's lunch Toyota and Honda, mostly seem to be getting by with a mere two brands apiece. Ford, now sandwiched between them in size, can't be reasonably expected to sustain eight.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
24 August 2006
Push, dammit

Gwendolyn's having a spa day, and in her absence, the dealer set me up with a G35, vintage 2004.

It took a while to adjust things evidently the last person to drive this car was a member of the Lullabye League but the G fits, albeit sports-car snug.

The growly VQ engine is here also, grown to 3.5 liters and 260 hp; there's a five-speed automatic at hand. On the way back from the shop, the G was docile and well-behaved; once shown an on-ramp, though, Dr. Jekyll jumped back into the closet.

For the G is rear-drive, the way God (or Karl Benz) intended cars to be, and the launch up that ramp was my first taste in ages of the sort of acceleration that hits you in the small of the back. Gwendolyn can do speed like that, but somehow it doesn't feel the same.

I've owned three front-wheel-drive cars in a row, and by and large, I've been happy with them; I know the limitations of the design, and I know how to get them to do what I want to do. But even the best FWD is no match for the best RWD, and the G (which, reskinned, is pretty much the current Nissan Z, a true halo car by my reckoning) is up there with the best.

Update, 2:45 pm: Make that two spa days. Apparently everyone in town showed up today with service requests. So I'll have the G overnight. Tragic, isn't it?

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:37 AM)
25 August 2006
Preemptive measures

When I turned Gwendolyn over to the dealership for her 90k service, I expected them to point out every little thing that was wrong with the car; after all, the word Inspect shows up rather frequently in the To-Do list.

And inasmuch as I'd rather have things fixed before they go troppo, I managed to add an extra $400 to her tab. Then again, nice new belts and nice new rear brakes are, well, nice, and they may save my bacon one of these days. I have never before had rear discs, or for that matter ABS, so I wasn't quite sure whether I actually needed the brake job or if it was just ABS overdoing it. The rotors weren't too bad, and could take a turning, but the pads were thinner than a politician's alibi. (I do look at discarded parts. Force of habit.) A pair of rear pads for this car, incidentally, runs $72.

Not that I'm in any mood to complain. Not only did they give my girl an actual bath (and a vacuuming), they reset the automagical power-seat thingy that I'd never been able to work correctly. And across the top of the invoice was my final request to the techs before I surrendered the key: CUSTOMER REQUESTS ADD 2 LBS OF EXTRA AIR TO TIRES.

Yeah, I'm anal.

As for the G, it was almost a shame to have to give it back, but I don't happen to have twenty grand for rolling stock right now. And it was wicked fast. Northbound on Kelley crossing 63rd, you have about 60 feet before the two lanes merge into one, and in the left lane was your friend and mine, Metro Transit. Let it be known that when the light turned green, it wasn't even close. I think I want one of those when I grow up. (Let's hope I drop a few pounds between now and then, since it was kinda snug in there, though I had no trouble finding a good driving position.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:17 PM)
27 August 2006
"Pre-washed" vehicles?

When last we heard from the M/V Cougar Ace, it was heeled over practically on its side. Now righted, the vessel is being towed to a shipyard in Portland, Oregon, where repairs will be made and its cargo will be inspected.

The Coast Guard has claimed that there was "minimal" damage to the fleet of Mazda vehicles carried by the Cougar Ace, and Mazda has announced that they will inspect the cars to see if they can salvage anything saleable from the lot.

I have no idea whether they're likely to find anything worth trying to sell, though nothing about large quantities of water is actually good for cars; I'm pretty sure Jay Tea isn't interested.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:33 PM)
29 August 2006
You'd think there'd be a hitch

Now here's something you don't see every day: a motor home with a garage.

Precisely where the Greyhound bus stashes your duffel bag, the Volkner Mobil RV parks your car. (This being a Eurovan, I have to assume that the space won't hold something the size of a Mercury Grand Marquis de Sade.) Still, it beats the heck out of towing the family car.

The Volkner is on display at the International Caravan Fair in Düsseldorf through Sunday, 3 September. Your local RV dealer down on the Interstate will be back as soon as his blood pressure returns to normal.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:53 AM)
1 September 2006
Making the ponies drink less

Alternative powerplants are becoming increasingly attractive to American motorists, says J. D. Power and Associates, although some of them seem unclear on the concept:

According to the study, consumer expectations for alternative-fuel vehicles tend to be unrealistic. Those considering a hybrid expect to pay a premium of more than $5,000 and hope to achieve 28 more miles for every gallon of gasoline. The actual mileage improvement is closer to 9 mpg. The shortcomings of expectations aren't quite as drastic for diesel consumers who believe they will pay $2,800 more than a gas-powered car and derive 21 miles more for each gallon, but in actuality receive an increase of about 12 mpg.

Well, the actual mileage improvement is closer to 9 mpg on otherwise-similar vehicles, and it's at least possible that some of these folks are contemplating not just hybrids, but smaller hybrids.

Toyota's genius, I think, was building the Prius on its own platform, so it couldn't be directly compared to the Corolla or the Echo/Yaris or the Camry or anything else they sell over here. Honda's Insight was similarly dissimilar, but its penalty-box-on-wheels nature probably discouraged as many buyers as its alleged 55-mpg fuel economy attracted, and the car was dropped from Honda's US line for 2007. Meanwhile, you can get quite a luxe-ish Prius if the check you write is big enough, and I keep wondering when Lexus is going to get its own version in the $35-45k range. (Assuming they use the same bifurcated powerplant, they could call it something like CS150h.)

And the laws of physics are nowhere near being repealed: the chief enemy of gas mileage is sheer mass, and you shouldn't expect anything miraculous from a vehicle that weighs two and a half tons no matter what kind of technotrickery is pressed into service.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:39 AM)
3 September 2006
Fukang interesting car

The PSA group of France (Peugeot-Citroën) has a joint venture with Chinese automaker Dongfeng, producing a range of Citroën-branded vehicles for the Chinese market. The crowd-pleaser of the bunch looks to be the FK, or Fukang:

The new design of Fukang 05 style completely meets the taste of Chinese consumers. It has been the most significant upgrade since its appearance on the market in 1992, and the new design enables Fukang to maximize engine efficiency. The introduction of this model emphasizes that Fukang is the first choice for the consumers and provides a great choice for the consumers who like Fukang.

No PSA or Dongfeng products are scheduled for US sale, so American consumers who like Fukang are just completely out of luck.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:09 AM)
5 September 2006
High maintenance

I'd like to think that there's a parallel universe where you don't have to parallel park, where all the beautiful women have beautiful cars, and nobody has to go through this:

[W]hen my DB9 Volante arrived in December I was dying to show it off.

Except I couldn't. The passenger door wouldn't open properly because the window did not drop to clear the frame. So off it went to the garage for a new door module.

Oh, well, it's under warranty, right?

But this was only the beginning. The second fault to emerge was with the sat nav system. It was unusable. Aside from the retro 2-D graphics that look less advanced than you'd see now as standard on much cheaper cars, it was permanently 30 miles off target. It had me driving through fields, across rivers and even into dodgy urban areas where this car just isn't meant to be.

Then the hood started squeaking noisily from both rear sides. The garage fixed that but left me with a rattle at the front. I've been waiting since May for the bit of trim to remedy that.

And for this much money, you're entitled to a few creature comforts:

[T]he Aston is very chilly to drive in winter and the windows don't rise up automatically after you put the hood down. You have to do this manually, a nuisance and surely a careless oversight. When I asked my dealer why these things weren't even available as optional extras I was told "because it's a sports car not a luxury vehicle". But who said these things had to be mutually exclusive, especially when you're paying £125,000 or more? In eight months my DB9 has been to the garage four times and awaits another visit (to fix the sat nav, rattling hood, Bluetooth and handbrake warning bell).

(Note to self: Do not kvetch at Gwendolyn for tossing up an engine light, especially since you obviously don't know how to tighten a farging gas cap.)

When I was younger I coveted the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3, an early-Seventies Teutonic hot rod of the American school: they took the mid-sized (by our standards) S-class body, to which an inline six was usually fitted, and dropped in the monstrous V8 from the 600 limo. It did not occur to me then that the very fitments that gave it such electrifying performance non-electronic fuel injection, a complicated air suspension would give mechanics fits. (Not that Herr Jakob would complain; two of these in town could put his daughter through Bennington.)

Nowadays, of course, a bone-stock V6 Honda Accord could outrun the 6.3, and make a perfunctory appearance at the dealership just long enough to get the oil changed.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:17 AM)
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