Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Webbing and Driving

So many people I know wouldn't dream of having a few drinks at a restaurant or bar and then climb behind the wheel of their vehicle. While it's great that they have strong convictions about drinking and driving, I wonder how many of them text while they drive. Studies have shown that people who text and drive are every bit as dangerous on the roads as drunk drivers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Second Coming of Saab

Saab PhoeniX Concept Car

People love a good comeback story, the kind where a person overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles, and Saab right now might be shaping up to be that kind of a story. Many people decided the brand was deader than dead three years ago when talk of bankruptcy and winding down the brand  was first brought up by General Motors management. After languishing for a while, the Swedish automotive brand finally seemed to succumb to the many factors that caused its demise. Many kind eulogies were written for the brand and then everyone seemed to move on.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Joys of Driving a Minivan!

I am a car guy, but I'm also practical and I'm not rich. I also have several kids (which is partially why I'm not rich) to transport safely and comfortably around town and on long trips. Because of my life situation I have found myself doing what I swore I would never, ever do: I bought a minivan.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Robot Cars Are Invading!

I grew up watching the Transformers (as well as the hopelessly inferior GoBots) and so from an early age I have a positive association with robot cars. Night Rider was also part of my ultra-healthy diet of mindless television, which also helped prepare me for the future of automobiles.

Yes, that's right folks, the future of automobiles will be robot cars. Like it or not, states like California are helping usher in a new era in motoring (as my friends across the pond like to say) where the human behind the wheel is not the only one driving the car. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Are You What You Drive?

2013 Land Rover Range Rover

The old Detroit adage was "you are what you drive." Actually much of the automotive industry, not just American automakers, have drummed this into people's heads for decades. I have heard people use this phrase with glee (when they have a car they just love) as well as with disdain (when they have a car they would love to drive off a cliff). Is it really true?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Don't Be a Winter Driver Idiot

Even an all-wheel-drive car, like this Subaru Impreza STI, can lose control in slick winter conditions if not driven carefully.

During the past weekend the first big winter storm just hit where I live, and of course with the snow covering the roads the idiot behavior has spread around far and wide. Time after time I saw people doing the exact things they shouldn't have been doing on the road considering the slippery conditions and poor visibility. I also overheard people talking to others about winter driving habits that are just plain dangerous like they were no big deal. These people are going to wonder what happened when they suddenly find themselves pinned against an eighteen wheeler or upside down in a ditch full of icy water--but by then it might be too late.

In the spirit of the idiot winter driving skills I have recently witnessed, here is a helpful list that can aid anyone to not drive like a complete idiot in the snow:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Used Cars: How I Inherit Others' Laziness

I have never been fortunate (rich) enough to buy a vehicle brand new, with only a few miles on the odometer. I have fantasized about going into a dealership one day and ordering a new vehicle with everything I desire, but I wonder if that dream will ever be realized. I know a brand new car loses value as soon as you purchase it which is why I continue to buy used vehicles and let someone else eat the drop in the vehicle's value.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bad Personal Experiences with Turbos

One of my very bad turbo experiences

I have officially owned three turbocharged vehicles up to this point in life. In reality I have some complex emotions about turbochargers, which are mostly negative in nature. Allow me to explain.

The first real experience I had with a turbocharged vehicle was when my oldest brother bought a 1997 Eagle Talon TSi. It came with all-wheel-drive and a large hump in the hood that supposedly was put there to make room for the turbocharger. Through the Talon's force-fed setup, it was able to produce 210 horsepower, making it a pretty fun and sporty car to drive. About a year later I was riding with my brother one hot summer night in Tempe, Arizona when steam started pouring out from under the Talon's hood. He pulled over to a gas station and popped the hood, allowing even more of the evaporated coolant to escape.

"Need some help?" two guys in a Civic quipped. I don't remember the exact response my brother shot at them, but it was pointed to say the least.

Fast forward several years, and I have owned two problematic turbocharged vehicles. Both of them were Volvos, which after finally consulting with a mechanic worth his salt about the second one, I have decided were both really bad ideas. Supposedly the first turbo Volvo was a lemon, as I had mechanics and Volvo aficionados swear to me that turbo Swede bricks often went to 300,000 miles or more without major mechanical problems.

The first turbo Volvo was horrible. The car drove fine at first, but eventually it started to spew out steam from evaporated coolant. I added coolant to the car constantly, but it regularly would threaten to overheat. I had a mechanic try to track down coolant leaks on multiple occasions, but it was to no avail. And then I started to notice the car's exhaust was white all the time--the surefire sign of a blown cylinder head. I didn't have the cash for a new head gasket, and then the car started to overheat all the time. It started running sluggishly. Rather than shoulder the huge repair bill it was sure to need, I dumped the car as quickly as possible.

The second turbo Volvo kindly waited until we were in the stretch of desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles to manifest its forced induction problems. More specifically, smoke plumed out from the undercarriage, the result of an oil leak that traveled along the underside of the car until it reached the catalytic converter. As if that weren't enough, oil also spewed in tiny droplets out of the tailpipe, spraying all over the back window. The back window's wiper couldn't clear the sticky mess away, leaving the driver to look through a distorted and sickly yellow film to view traffic from behind. After many repair bills trying to track down the oil leaks, which seemed to crop up in new places after the old ones were fixed, I finally escorted the car to automotive heaven.
If it had been up to just these experiences, I wouldn't be conflicted at all about turbos. I would swear off ever, ever owning another forced induction vehicle. The fact of the matter was these two turbocharged Volvos happened to be a lot of fun to drive, when they were running at least reasonably well. Even though neither one had a large engine, they both accelerated strongly and provided a large power band. I live around large mountains with steep canyon roads, and both vehicles pulled strong up the steep inclines. The fact they had turbos also meant I didn't have to shell out a bunch of money for gas.

What made me feel even more conflicted about turbochargers was owning my Saab. Not too long after having purchased my Saab I realized its turbocharger system was much more advanced than the ones included in either of my Volvos. The turbo response was much faster, and the turbo pulled the car harder. Even better, I didn't have to deal with oil or coolant leaks, overheating or any of the other problems my turbo Volvos had almost from the get-go. The Saab was also a lot more fun to drive.

My turbo Saab

As I watch with great interest a sudden surge in turbocharger use by manufacturers such as Ford and BMW part of me gets excited while another part of me shrinks back in terror. Are these turbochargers like the one I had in my Saab (which was the newest of the three vehicles) or are they like the horrible ones in my Volvos? I know with any turbocharged vehicle you have to watch the coolant and oil levels like a hawk, but I also know from experience that being faithful about watching the car's fluids doesn't mean the turbocharger won't give you major headaches.

Let's just put it this way: I have declared to my wife that if I do buy another turbocharged car it won't be a Volvo and it will be a hobby car.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Does Gen Y Really Want Ugly Cars?

2011 Nissan Juke

Automotive manufacturers seem to be desperate to capture business from the seemingly elusive Generation Y. They are employing all kinds of tricks and gimmicks, even trying out things they would never dream using on Gen X or the Boomers, all with little to no success. GM and other automakers have even tried ads that use "cool" language popular with the generation. Perhaps the most jarring and interesting marketing technique is the manufacturing of ugly automobiles as a way to lure Generation Y to buy.

The list of ugly cars seems to be growing all the time. First there was the Honda Element, which isn't completely hideous. Most of the people I see driving them are older than I am. Other cars like the Nissan Cube or Scion IQ took the ugly factor further. Perhaps the ugliest car on the road today is the Nissan Juke.

I have to admit that ugly cars are nothing new. The Gremlin looked like it had been hit by the ugly stick a few thousand times. Some people may hate me for it, but I find the Fox platform Mustangs (from the 80s to early 90s) to be quite hideous. Then there was the horrible last generation of the Toyota Celica, which seriously looked like an angry rabbit. Of course there is always that ultimate in automotive ugliness: the Pontiac Aztec. When I think of all the ugly cars from the past I begin to think the ugly trend is one of the constants in the automotive industry. 

Toyota Celica

I'm really at the tail end of Gen X or the beginning of Gen Y, depending on how you draw the cutoff. Because of my unique position, perhaps I have a perspective not shared by many automotive executives. I don't think Gen Y is looking for ugly cars any more than any other generation has had an affinity for them. There will always be those tasteless people in every generation who wear white socks with dark pants and shoes, but they're always a minority. Instead, I think the real issue is affordability.

Gen Y has the unique pleasure of being the generation who gets to graduate into adulthood in a world that is in the throes of economic turmoil. Most people from the generation have also seen the horribly negative consequences of their parents' spend thrift mentality (a stereotypical trait of the Boomers) that is fueled by image consciousness. The result is many members of Gen Y cannot or do not want to afford an expensive vehicle. Because they are thinking about more than image, younger car buyers also want a vehicle that works in a day-to-day practical way. This means the car cannot be constantly needing maintenance, has enough cargo room, gets good gas mileage, etc.

While everyone is focusing on the ugly cars populating the roads (it's kind of hard to not gawk at them in horrid disbelief) many are missing some of the beauties that are favored by Gen Y. Sure, the Subaru Impreza WRX and STI that are so beloved by younger kids started out ugly, but they have transformed from ugly ducklings into curvy hatchbacks and sedans. The new Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ is another example of an attractive car that appeals to Gen Y. These are cars that provide a certain automotive experience or utility for significantly less money.

2012 Subaru BRZ

Perhaps the biggest factor fueling the ugly car movement is that kids just plain don't want to drive a car like mom's or dad's. There are a few exceptions to this, but most kids feel the intense desire to form their own identities. There's no denying that cars have been and for the foreseeable future will continue to be deeply tied to our personal identities. This is why so many of my generation are squeezing their kids into the cramped third rows of new crossovers rather than drive the more practical minivan that looks too much like what mom drove back in the day.

So automotive industry executives, listen up: Gen Y will buy attractive cars if they are affordable and don't look too much like the cars of the last thirty years.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ford to the Rescue!!!

Ford dropped some huge news yesterday, announcing a new Special Service Vehicle Package for the F-150. This means in the near future when you are pulled over for speeeding or cited by the fire marshall for having too many people in your restaurant, an uber-cool F-150 might be part of the process.

According to Ford, the SSV package will be available in a variety of cab configurations, and with a variety of engines--including the highly popular EcoBoost powertrain. Making the deal even sweeter, the package comes at no additional cost. The marketing boost from having its trucks constantly in front of the public, just like the old Crown Vics, will undoubtedly more than make up for it. Besides, Ford is the only one out of the big three automakers that didn't get a huge government bailout and it is flush with cash.

It's a good time to be Ford, for sure.

EV Smart Fortwos Start Rolling!

Daimler's smallest production car--the smart fortwo--is now rolling out of the factory with a brand spanking new electric power train. As if the combustion versions of the fortwo are not fuel efficient enough, the new EV models promise even less environmental impact and greater fuel efficiency.

Perhaps most intriguing is that unlike some EVs, the electric fortwo promises a drive quality similar to combustion models. Daimler outfitted them with an electric motor that puts out 55 kilowatts and propels the car forward from 0 to 100 km/h at a respectable 4.8 seconds. While I doubt anyone is going to start racing fortwos of any kind (except for tuners--they modify Nissan Jukes for cryin' out loud) such performance should help drivers merge into urban traffic easily. The car also promises a range of 145 kilometers (that's 90 miles for those afraid of the metric system) in stop-and-go city traffic. Because of its small size, I think Daimler didn't count on anyone road-tripping in the fortwo.

Gone are the days that people viewed electric cars as only quirky and slow. The new crop of electrics are promising a more practical way to drive, all with no tailpipe emissions (the car doesn't even have a tailpipe).

How much will a new electric smart fortwo set you back? US pricing has not been announced yet, but in Europe a coupe model with a rental battery will cost 18,910 Euros, while owning the battery increases the price to 23,680 Euros.

Source: Daimler Corporation

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ford Becoming More Advanced with Turbos

Have you ever owned a turbocharged vehicle? I have owned three, and have drive a lot more. Turbocharged cars are funny things, as they are really not all good or all bad. In fact, having owned three different turbo cars, I can tell you that not all turbocharger setups are created equal. The bad of turbos is that they might have major turbo lag, leaving you waiting for your car to get up and go at stop lights. They also can burn through coolant and oil like nobody's business, leading to overheating, and they love to blow gaskets. The good in turbos includes that they are light on the gasoline, which can translate into a lower cost of operation. Turbos also make cool noises (especially if they have a blow-off valve) and they can turn a so-so engine into a monster (or a monster engine into a rocket).

Some higher-end turbocharged vehicles employ tricks such as twin turbo systems, which help eliminate turbo lag and increase/extend the torque curve for better performance. Unfortunately, having two turbos costs more, so on less-expensive turbo vehicles a single setup is the only option.

Well, in steps Ford, the American automaker who is innovating and shaking like crazy lately, with a new turbo technology for the 2013 Focus ST. The Blue Oval calls the new technology "overboost" turbocharging. You can read all about the technicalities (at least some of them--sorry any engineers out there) on Ford's website. To boil it down to the basics: the overboost technology greatly reduces turbo lag even though the Focus ST comes with a single turbo. Ford's technology also extends the Focus ST's peak torque output from 3,000 RPM to 4,500 RPM for up to 15 seconds at a whack. This increased torque band essentially works like a fighter jet's afterburners, giving the car a needed boost on occasion.

This technology actually isn't new, but the 2013 Focus ST will be the first vehicle sold in North America with the overboost turbo technology. Ford has been doing an excellent job selling Americans on turbocharged engines, with the EcoBoost trim levels going for a premium.

What about the drawbacks of turbocharged vehicles? The 2013 Ford Focus ST's engine is supposed to be tuned to virtually eliminate turbo lag. I have drive some vehicles with single turbos where this is the case, and driving them is a blast. As far as the overheating issue, Ford engineers claim they have outfitted the Focus ST with a very robust cooling system.

Also offered on the 2013 Ford Focus ST are Recaro racing-inspired front seats, as well as an exclusive color called Tangerine Scream. Obviously the American automaker is gearing the Focus ST to portray a thrilling driving experience, and I am hoping they actually deliver. With the new turbo technology, peak power output has been certified at 252 horsepower and 270 lb-ft torque, which sounds pretty thrilling to me.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

My First Car

My first car was a read beater: a 1981 Honda Prelude that had been totaled out twice before. It was three different colors and shook like crazy once it got above 50 miles per hour. The dash lights didn't work, which meant driving at night I would have to estimate my speed. The cassette player ate any tapes you would put it in. The car had been owned by a smoker before, which meant if the lavish sheepskin-covered seats got wet, they would reek like an ashtray. Even better, the turn signal stalk hung by wires from the steering column, meaning I would have to pick it up, insert it into the steering column at just the right angle, and then hold it in place until I had finished signaling a turn.

I don't have a picture of my first car, but at the time I hated it so much I wanted to forget all about it. Looking back on it, I never had to worry about girls liking me because they wanted to be seen riding in a flashy car. I never had to worry about locking the thing, either. Sure, so traveling on the freeway wasn't fun in the car, but I didn't go on the freeway very often anyway. I wouldn't want to own the car again, but it was good for the stage of life I was in at the time.