Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reviewing the 2011 Buick Regal

Reviewing the 2011 Buick Regal Buick is now the best-selling American car... in China. But in America, Buick is struggling to regain its footing. The traditional (read: older) Buick buyer can't support the brand's future. And buyers under 50 generally don't even think about Buick when they go car shopping. Certainly not the entry-luxury (and sport-oriented) under-50 crowd that Buick needs to win over in order to survive. That is a tough position to be in. Does the new-for-2011 Regal have the stuff necessary to make some headway? Or will it quickly become another Rental Car Special?


The 2011 Regal is Buick's entry-level sedan. It's about the same size as a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord but (according to Buick) is aimed more at slightly smaller, more athletic near-luxury sedans like the Lexus IS250 and Acura TSX. Base price is $26,245 for the CXL with 2.4 liter engine. A performance-themed CXL turbo with 2.0 liter engine (late availability) starts at $28,745. All versions are front-wheel-drive.


The '11 Regal is a new model for Buick, though not for GM. The same basic car is sold in Europe under the Opel banner as the Insignia.


Though not a fire-breather like the '80s-era Regal T-Types and Grand Nationals were, the latest Regal is a lot more alive-feeling (and youthful looking) than the AARP Staff Car Regals that immediately preceded it. Turbo power available late fall/spring 2011. Really sharp interior. Excellent gas mileage (30-plus on the highway). Comes with (or can be ordered with) up-to-date features and equipment such as hard-drive based navigation and music storage - you know, stuff that earlier Buicks were famous for not having.

Big (for the class) trunk. A bargain compared to the Lexus IS250 ($32,145) and Acura TSX ($29,310). A sportier alternative to a Camry for about the same money.


The name. Regal is a venerable Buick trademark going back several decades, but many current-day buyers who remember it probably associate it with wire-wheeled starter caskets that squat in the fast lane doing precisely 3 MPH below the posted speed limit - not exactly the image Buick is hoping to cultivate. Turbocharged 220 hp engine isn't available yet; Buick says soon.... Pricey - for what it is: $26k (to start) for a four-cylinder Buick may be a hard sell.


The Regal's standard powerplant is a 2.4 liter, 182 hp four with direct fuel injection. It drives the front wheels through a six-speed automatic. For at least the first few months of production, this will be the only available powertrain. Expect a zero to 60 time of around 8.3 seconds. Fuel efficiency is very good: 20 city, 30 highway.

By spring 2011, Buick will offer a 2.0 liter, turbocharged/direct injected four good for an expected 220 hp, along with a six-speed manual transmission (and optional six-speed automatic). Acceleration with this engine promises to be appropriate to the class/price - in the mid-low seven second range. That would be competitive with cars like the Lexus IS250/Acura TSX - and quicker than a four-cylinder Camry or Honda Accord.

Gas mileage with the 2.0 engine ought to be about the same; at most a few MPGs less than the base engine delivers. At this point, it does not appear likely Buick will offer an AWD set-up in the Regal.


Overall, this is (by far) the most engaging-to-drive Regal since the '80s-era rear-wheel-drive muscle coupes that also bore the Regal name. It comes standard with 18 inch rims and performance tires, not 15s with whitewalls. The steering actually seems connected to the road - and the suspension will hold the line if you lean on it hard in a corner. The Opel DNA (and European tuning) shows.

The only disappointment comes from under the hood. The 2.4 liter engine doesn't have the gumption to get close to 4,000 pounds (3,600 lbs. of car plus a driver and passenger) moving with suitable swiftness. A zero to 60 time in the mid eight second range isn't terrible - it's just not in the right ballpark for the competition Buick is scoping out. Both the IS250 and the Acura TSX have about 20 hp more (and in the case of the Lexus IS, two more cylinders), standard - with more on tap if you need it in the form of optional engines that get within spitting distance of 300 hp.

Granted, both the Lexus IS and the Acura TSX cost much, much more than the Buick (especially with their optional engines) so a direct comparison isn't really fair. The problem, though, is that it's not car reviewers who are making the comparison - it's Buick that's doing it. If the Regal's target competition was, say, the four-cylinder version of the Toyota Camry (or the four-cylinder Accord), ok. The Regal looks pretty good, then. But if the stack-up is against cars like the IS250 and TSX, Buick should not have released the Regal before getting the eventually-will-get-here 2.0 liter, turbo engine and six-speed stick into the lineup. Because with just the 2.4 liter engine, the Buick can't hang.


Outside, the new Regal has a pretty generic modern shape - the basic "jellybean" distinguished as a Buick by the large, one-piece grille with vertical slats and triple shield Buick badge in the middle. There are some interesting detail touches, such as the reverse "L" dimple pressed into the doors that traces its line back to the rear fender arches - and a BMW-cum Acura-ish rear section with integrated spoiler lip. Though not a head-turner, the Regal is subtly handsome - and that's in keeping with the division's history as a brand that caters to people with money and taste, but who prefer to keep a lower profile.

Inside, the layout is Euro-modern (once again, credit the Opel background) with a blue-backlit primary gauge cluster (speedo and tach, temp and gas) and LCD driver info display nestled between them. Nice seats that are a midway between aggressive sport buckets - and zero-support bench seats. There are thigh and shoulder bolsters, but they're not hug-you-too-tight and it's easy to slide in and out of the car. The touchscreen display for the nav/audio system is large and legible; the secondary buttons below it for other functions are simple to understand and generally easy to use.

A big Regal plus is significantly more backseat legroom (37.3 inches) than its two chief target competitors - the Acura TSX (34.3 inches) and Lexus IS250 (30.6 inches). It also has a noticeably larger trunk (14.2 cubic feet) vs. 13 cubic feet for the Lexus and 12.6 cubic feet for the Acura.

The Regal offers almost as much back seat and trunk space as the Toyota Camry, too (38.3 inches, 15 cubic feet) and actually beats the Honda Accord (37.2 inches, 14 cubic feet) on those points.


This is a nicely put-together and solid-feeling car. The Regal's 2.4 liter engine has been found reliable in other cars - and GM's track record for durability and quality has been top notch for the past several years.

The only issue as I see it is that the market (the U.S. market, anyhow) doesn't currently perceive Buick as the equivalent, status-wise, of Lexus or Acura. Buick, the division, dates from an era when there were no Japanese-brand luxury cars, period - and when Buick was a stepping stone on the road to a Cadillac within GM's brand hierarchy. That is all in the past, though - and it's an open question whether Buick (or, similarly, Ford's Mercury division) can survive in a completely changed-over marketplace that just may not have room for what amounts to an almost-Lexus brand. The underpowered, take-it-or-leave-it 2.4 liter engine really hurts the car, too.

GM would have been well-advised to hold off introducing the Regal until it could at least put the not-yet-here turbocharged 2.0 liter engine on the list of available options - because $26k is a lot to ask for a four-cylinder-only car with a zero to 60 time in the mid 8 second range. This may hurt the car's image, which will hurt sales - which will eventually hurt resale values.

Safety-wise, there's OnStar - GM's voice-activated, GPS-based concierge and emergency assistance service - as well as traction and stability control, front seat side-impact and curtain air bags. All standard.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How About More Than One Type of Driver's License?

How About More Than One Type of Driver's License? What if we tried a tiered licensing system? It's self-evident that there's a wide range of driving ability - from the barely competent to the highly skilled. Yet we have a one-size-fits-all licensing policy. And worse, traffic laws based on the least common denominator. This is a pretty clumsy and counterproductive approach, if you stop to think about it.

For openers, it breeds cynicism and lack of respect for the traffic code on the part of better-than-average drivers - who not only resent being ticketed for violating rules designed for the inept (such as no turn on red) but know full well that driving faster than an artificially low speed limit is by no means "unsafe" - despite the DMV and insurance company agit-prop. Rather, it's just a means for extracting money to fund this or that municipal project - albeit without resort to an open, overt tax.

Widespread contempt for these little rules - and those who enforce them - is another side effect. Traffic control devices (signs, lights, etc.) quickly lose their informational value. When speed limits are routinely under-posted, we become habituated to ignoring them. Curves posted 45 mph are taken at 60 without the slightest drama. We learn that such signs are worthless as far as their "warning" value is concerned. It's all contrived - whereas a properly posted speed limit would actually provide useful information about the fastest safe speed for a given stretch of road.

And: The not-so-competent have very little incentive to get better. Their marginal driving ability is reinforced and even rewarded. This tends to create more (and worse) bad drivers - in a road-bound manifestation of Gresham's Law. Instead of doing something about drivers too addled or inept to gauge the flow of cross traffic, we pass No Turn on Red laws. Rather than ticket (or send off for remedial instruction) drivers who come to a stop on freeway on-ramps, we put up traffic lights to institutionalize incompetence - treating everyone as if they were as helpless and inept as the worst drivers out there.

While all this is going on the automakers work overtime developing ingenious (but complex and expensive) technology to, essentially, idiot-proof cars. Anti-lock brakes make skidding out harder. But we now have drivers who have no idea how to handle a skid when one does happen - as on ice, where ABS is ineffective.

Stability and traction control systems keep the vehicle tracking straight even under inclement conditions and very high speeds. But this arguably creates a false sense of security - making the Average Joe feel like Michael Schumacher. So he drives much faster, under more tenuous conditions. When loss of control does happen (computers can only do so much) the results are often much more catastrophic due to the higher speeds involved. Maybe a tiered licensing system would reverse the trend, at least a little bit.

What does a "tiered" licensing system mean? In brief, it would be a system with more than one level of driver's license. Demonstrated higher skill would qualify an applicant for a higher tier license. And with it would come certain privileges, such as the right to drive faster on certain roads (such as highways) which would have a lane reserved for high-speed traffic.

There's no reason why a driver capable of holding an SCCA license shouldn't be able to drive at 80 or 90 mph on a modern Interstate - other than the dumbed-down leveling of our currently set up traffic laws, which assume everyone on the road is as marginally skilled as the most marginally skilled driver out there. Which is like putting the bright kid in with the Specials. He's frustrated - and the Specials get no benefit from dragging him to their level - other than perhaps indulging their envy. Which if vicious anyhow and ought not to be the basis for policy of any kind.

To those who say a tiered system would be an administrative nightmare and impossible to enforce - one has only to look across to the pond to England, where a tiered licensing system for motorcycles has existed for years. The basic principle is identical: New/inexperienced riders must acquire proficiency (and ride smaller cc, less powerful machines) until they've shown they can handle more - at which point they may graduate to a full license and ride whatever machine they wish to ride. It works for the Brits; it could work for us, too.

We could have a basic license - which entitles the bearer to operate a motor vehicle on public roads, but which prohibits him from (for example) making rights on red - or using the high-speed lanes on the Interstate.

The "top" license would confer special privileges - including the right to make a right (or even a left) on red and to use high-speed lanes set aside for high-speed traffic. To qualify, the applicant would need to take and pass a course of high-speed/high-performance/accident avoidance driving techniques such as those currently given to law enforcement personal - or (in the private sector) by schools such as those run by Skip Barber and Bob Bondurant. The applicant would need to demonstrate proficiency not merely at driving fast - but at driving fast safely.

But that would only be half of it. A high-skilled driver (just like a high-skilled martial artist) may use his higher skills irresponsibly. To counter that, the tiered system would contain provisions calling for immediate revocation of privileges for confirmed abuse (such as reckless driving) as well as a major review (with possible revocation) anytime the bearer is involved in an at-fault accident.

Penalties for operating a vehicle on the restricted high-speed lanes (or exercising "top" license privileges such as making a right on red) when not properly licensed would also have to be severe enough to make anyone think twice about abusing the system. Arrest on the spot. Vehicle impounded and (upon conviction of the owner) sold at auction. End of story. Violations would likely be few and far between. And we'd enjoy freer-flowing roads, less henpecky and counterproductive laws - and misuse of police manpower, too. Everything would run a lot more smoothly.

But it will never happen - for despite all the talk about America being a merit-based society, the reality is that on the roads, it's socialism - from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. No one's allowed to rise above the level of the least common denominator. At least, not without risking a piece of payin' paper!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reviewing the 2010 Mazda CX-7

Reviewing the 2010 Mazda CX-7 There are at least two things about the Mazda CX-7 that make it stand out. One, it's got styling - and driving vivaciousness - above and beyond the more SUV-esque compact-to-medium-sized crossovers in its price range like the practical but dowdy-looking (and driving) Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4.

Two, its MSRP of just under $22k to start is happily affordable compared with similarly snarky entry-luxury sportwagons such as the $32,520 Acura RDX - as well as the Toyota Venza ($26,275 to start) and also the new Honda Crosstour ($29,670).


The CX-7 is a medium-small five-passenger hatchback sportwagon available in either front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive versions and with or without turbocharged engine.

Prices start at $21,700 for the base i SV with front-wheel-drive and 2.5 liter (non-turbo) engine and run up to $33,035 for an AWD-equipped s Grand Touring with 2.3 liter turbocharged engine.


Significant tweaks for 2010 include a new nose piece, updated interior and improved fuel-efficiency from the optional turbocharged engine.


Looks as sharp as an RDX - for $10k less. Handles more like a sports car than a heavy-footed crossover SUV. Really scoots when equipped with optional 2.3 liter turbo engine.


Isn't as practical as something like a RAV4, CR-V or Equinox. Base 2.5 liter engine underpowered for the weight of this vehicle. No manual transmission available; no V-6 offered.


Base model CX-7s come equipped with a 2.5 liter, 161 hp four-cylinder and five-speed automatic. This engine comes only with a five-speed automatic - and only with front-wheel-drive. The optional engine is a turbocharged 2.3 liter four rated at 244 hp. It, too, comes only with an automatic but you do get a six-speed unit. All-wheel-drive is available optionally with the 2.3 liter engine.

When so equipped, up to 50 percent of the engine's power is kicked back to the rear wheels for improved grip in low traction snowy and wet weather driving conditions. Otherwise, close to 100 percent of the engine's output goes to the front wheels. The non-turbo CX-7 takes about 10 seconds to reach 60; the turbo-equipped model is much quicker, getting there in about 7.5 seconds (with FWD; the slightly heavier AWD-equipped model gets to 60 in about 7.7 seconds).

Fuel economy with the base engine is 20 city, 28 highway; with the turbo engine and FWD, it's 18 city, 25 highway. With AWD, that drops slightly to 17 city, 23 highway. Max tow rating is 2,000 lbs. (with turbo engine).


The CX-7 is a typical Mazda product; it looks fun - and it is fun. Think of it as an RX-8 wagon rather than a "crossover" - let alone an "SUV." Higher-speed handling is pretty tight for a vehicle with 8.1 inches of ground clearance, which ought to make it feel top-heavy but doesn't. There's give for potholes but grip, too. Excellent steering - direct, no lag time, not too boosted, not to heavy.

Mazda's supension tuning is just excellent. Among the best available, even when you don't take price into account. Which is why it'd be nice if a manual six-speed were available - and really ought to be, given the CX-7's let's go! personality. An available manual transmission would also go a long way toward improving the base car's less-than-inspiring straight-line feel. There is adequate power for normal driving but the CX-7 is such a sporting vehicle that "adequate power" is less than ideal. 161 hp and a five-speed automatic - that's it - doesn't fit rest of the car's demeanor, or its handling capabilities. A six-speed would also help mask the power deficit (161 hp is marginal in a 3,496 lb. vehicle) and make an already very appealing car even more so.

Of course, there's always the optional 2.3 liter turbo. No worries here, as far as power or performance goes. In fact, the Mazda's 2.3 liter engine is 4 hp stronger than the 2.3 liter, 240 hp turbo four found in the otherwise very similar - but bucketloads of cash more expensive - Acura RDX. A manual transmission option would be nice with the turbo engine, too - but the 83 hp bump in output makes up for many things, including the absence of a clutch pedal.


Appearance-wise, the CX-7 is closer to the RDX, Crosstour, Venza and other sporty wagons than SUV-esque competitors in its price class like the RAV4, Equinox and CR-V. It is sleek where they are boxy; lithe where they are chunky. There's nothing wrong with either look, of course. It's just a question of which you prefer. To Mazda's credit, they tried something different rather than produce a Mazda knock-off of the SUV/crossover template. Some reviewers have critiqued the CX-7 for sacrificing practicality (in the form of roominess and cargo capacity) to style, but this is only partially fair.

Yes, the interior is cozier than in something like the Equinox. Realistically, the CX-7 is a four-person vehicle. You can carry five (adults) if absolutely necessary, but not very comfortably. But this is also a True Fact about most if not all "five passenger" compact and mid-sized crossover wagons and light-duty AWD-equipped SUVs.

On the other hand, the Mazda has almost as much cargo room (59 cubic feet) as the seemingly more sizable Equinox (64 cubic feet), almost exactly as much as the luxury-priced RDX (61 cubic feet) and more than the Honda Crosstour (51 cubic feet). The Venza (70 cubic feet), CR-V (73 cubic feet) and RAV4 (also 73 cubic feet) do have considerably more cargo room, but (to turn things around a bit) sacrifice looks/sportiness to deliver it. So, again, it comes down to which look you prefer - and what your needs are.

Some worthwhile mentions about the CX-7's design/layout include a nearly foot-deep center console well that will swallow a standard laptop computer, the multiple tie-down points in the rear cargo area - and an amazingly spacious engine compartment, at least in 2.5 liter equipped models, that should make basic DIY service such as oil and filter changes a snap.


If you go by the stats - general layout/available power/performance/features - as well as subjectives such as styling and driving zip, the CX-7 should be compared to cars like the RDX, Crosstour, Venza and other sporty wagons like that -rather than models like the CR-V, RAV4 and Equinox. But most reviewers don't make that comparison because of the huge price difference between the $21k to start CX-7 and the pushing $30k to start (and more) RDX, Crosstour and Venza. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't look at it this way. Because on so many important points, the CX-7 is very arguably the best "entry luxury" sport wagon on the market - even if its not official.

The only area where I found a slight cheap-out that betrayed some cost-cutting efforts was the jamb area that's exposed when the rear liftgate is opened. It wasn't clear-coated (though the door jambs were). It's a very, very small thing in my opinion - and nothing I'd worry much about given the thousands of dollars in your pocket if you bought the CX-7 over an RDX or Crosstour, etc.

All major current safety features (front seat side-impact air bags, curtain air bags for both rows, ABS, traction and stability control) are standard. A back-up camera is available optionally. The standard comprehensive warranty is three years or 36,000 miles; five years or 60,000 miles on the powertrain. No great shakes there.


Despite a few small flaws - including the not-so-great warranty (a consideration for potential buyers of the turbo version, especially) the CX-7 is still a breath of fresh air in a pretty stodgy segment - and a great value-priced alternative to a pricey (and arguably, overpriced) Crosstour, Venza or RDX.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reviewing the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander

Reviewing the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Everyone who knows abut cars knows about the EVO - Mitsubishi Motors' all-wheel-drive supercar. The problem for Mitsubishi is the rest of its lineup isn't as well-known - especially among people who aren't car freaks, who are the majority of the buying public.

One of these is the Outlander - a sportier take on the mid-sized crossover wagon concept. Mitsubishi's intent is to lure buyers of Name Brand crossovers like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V by offering a bit more zip for a few less bucks. Should you take a look?


The Outlander is a sport-themed, 5-7 passenger crossover SUV with standard third row seating. It is available with either four or six-cylinder engines and FWD or AWD. Prices begin at $21,995 for the front-wheel-drive ES with 2.4 liter engine and "Sportronic" CVT transmission and run to $27,795 for a performance-minded GT with 3 liter V-6 and performance calibrated AWD system.


Mitsubishi is trying to boost sales of the sport-minded GT version of the Outlander by dropping the price by almost $1,500 (last year's GT had an MSRP of $29,250). Base SE models now come standard with third row seating and can be ordered with upgraded leatherette trim. XLS trims get an updated exterior based on the aggressive shark-nosed look of the GT, as well as standard xenon HID headlights, rain-sensing wipers and aluminum pedals.


Sharper styling than Mrs. Doubtfire-looking competitors like Toyota's RAV4 and the Honda CR-V. Sharper handling than more SUV-esque competitors like the Chevy Equinox. Comprehensive range of trim/drivetrain packages, from economy-minded ES to fairly serious performance-minded GT. Large, dog-friendly rear cargo area. Standard third row seating. AWD available with four-cylinder engine. GT's a decent deal - and a decent performer.


No manual transmission with either engine. Base four cylinder engine is underpowered for the weight of the vehicle - especially AWD versions. Third row is cramped and hard to access - usable by kids only. Base 2011 SE is about $1,000 more than last year's SE and about the same price as Name Brand rivals like the Toyota RAV4 ($21,925) and Honda CR-V ($21,695).

Historically, Mitsubishis depreciate faster than Name Brand Japanese competitors. Sometimes, a lot faster.


Outlander can be equipped with either a 2.4 liter, 168 hp four cylinder engine or (optionally) a 3.0 liter, 230 hp V-6. Both engines are available with FWD or (optionally) AWD. The four comes paired with a "Sportronic" Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic; the V-6 comes with a six-speed automatic. Neither engine is available with a manual transmission. Performance is just so-so, mostly because of the Outlander's 3,400 lb. curb weight. The base SE with four cylinder needs about 9 seconds to reach 60 mph while the V-6 is about a second quicker. Gas mileage is mediocre.

EPA rates the base SE with front-wheel-drive at 21 city, 27 highway; with AWD this drops a bit to 21 city and 25 highway. V-6 versions are thirstier, but not obnoxiously so. EPA says 19 city, 25 highway for FWD versions and 18 city, 24 highway for AWD-equipped models.

The Outlander's optional AWD system is significantly different than what you find in competitors - almost all of which are not driver-adjustable and remain in all-wheel-drive all the time, whether it's needed or not. The Outlander's system, in contrast, is more like what you'd find in a truck or SUV with a part-time 4WD system in that you can turn a knob on the center console to go from FWD to AWD, as conditions indicate. In FWD (which Mitsubishi labels "2WD" on the console-mounted control knob) all the engine's power goes to the front wheels only. Choose AWD (which Mitsu labels "4WD") and about 15-40 percent of the engine's power is always routed to the back wheels.

Choose the third setting - 4WD Lock - and the system will increase the amount of power kicked back to the rear wheels up to 60 percent. However, the system does not lock the drivetrain into a permanent/constant 40-60 split, front to rear, as the name suggests. Maximum tow rating with the V-6 is 3,500 lbs.


If only the Outlander had more power - and a six-speed manual transmission (especially with the V-6). Because otherwise, it's a lot of fun.

The Lancer/EVO DNA is evident during high-speed cornering, at which the Outlander - especially the GT - excels. The weight of the vehicle doesn't lurch to outside, squashing down the suspension on that side - with the stability control system frantically trying to keep you from rolling the thing - which happens with some of the less-poised competition. There's a nice weight to the steering, too - which tracks directly with the vehicle's nose instead of being a step ahead or behind.

It's just that 3,400 pounds (FWD versions; AWD versions are even heavier) is too much bulk for the 168 hp four; even the 230 hp V-6 could use another 30 or so hp to get the Outlander moving swiftly enough in a straight line to match the promise of its athletic image.

Still, the Outlander's stats stack up favorably against competitors like the very popular Honda CR-V, which does doesn't offer a V-6 at all - and whose take-it-or-leave-it 2.4 liter, 166 hp engine is less powerful than the Outlander's base four. CR-V is also one of the slowest cars in the segment, with a 0-60 time of 10-plus seconds for the AWD version - and it can't pull more than 1,500 pounds.

Toyota's RAV4 outguns the Outlander with its standard 179 hp 2.5 liter four and its optional 269 hp 3.5 liter V-6, the latter of which can propel the Toyota to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. But it's a bit more expensive to start - $21,925 - and while you can get a V-6 RAV4 ($23,960) for less than an Outlander V-6 ($25,795) Toyota doesn't offer a performance-minded version of the RAV such as the Outlander GT and overall the RAV4 is much less sporty to look at - and to drive - even if it is a lot quicker in a straight line.

Same thing if you compare the Outlander with SUV-leaning crossovers like the Chevy Equinox. The Chevy is a very nice vehicle but leans farther to the SUV side of the fence, both in terms of how it looks as well as how it drives. It has more standard power (2.4 liters, 182 hp) but no available third row - and less total cargo capacity. Also, neither the Toyota nor the Honda nor the Chevy offer the driver-controlled AWD system the Outlander does.


The Outlander's got more visual pizazz than the blandly styled CR-V and RAV4 - or the traditionally SUV-esque Chevy Equinox. The new EVO-inspired forward-canted nosepiece juts out like the snout of a hungry Mako shark.

While the Outlander, RAV and CR-V all have about the same cargo-carrying capacity - 36.2 cubes behind the second row; 73 cubes with the second row folded flat for the Mitsu vs. 36.4/73 cubes for the Toyota and 35.7/73 for the Honda - the Outlander has significantly more ground clearance (8.5 inches) than either the CR-V (7.3 inches) or the RAV4 (7.5 inches), which should be helpful in snow. Surprisingly, Chevy's Equinox has less total cargo capacity than all three of these - just 63 cubic feet.

The Outlander's available folding third-row seat, meanwhile, gives the Mitsu a leg up on the CR-V and Equinox - neither of which offer a third row at all - and equalizes things on this score with the RAV4 (which does). The Outlander's third row is cramped and pretty much viable only for kids. But it is there - and it does give you the ability to carry up to seven people in a pinch, which neither the Equinox nor the CR-V can do.

The Outlander also offers useful and unique features like a fold-out lower rear section two-piece liftgate. This opens up the cargo area and makes it easier to get big/bulky/heavy items in there, since you don't have to lift them up and over as much as you do in some competitor's models. The liftgate can also safely support more than 400 pounds, too - so two normal-sized adults can sit on it if they like. The area behind the third row seats is deep, wide - and very dog friendly. I carted around two 80 pound Labrador Retrievers during the week I test-drove the Outlander. The optional Fuse voice command system is similar in operation to others on the market (such as Ford's Sync). You can use it t make hands-free calls or control the audio system without having to fiddle with manual knobs or buttons.

Other cool stuff you'll find includes an optionally available 650 watt Rockford Fosgate audio rig with Sirius satellite radio, 40 GB music storage hard drive - and two dinner plate-sized subwoofers built into the sidewalls of the cargo area.


Mitsubishi's main weakness relative to its main competitors is a (historically) spottier record on the quality control front, which in turn has really put the arm on the depreciation rates of Mitsubishi vehicles. On the upside, Mitsubishi offers long-lived basic and powertrain coverage that's superior to all of its major rivals - five years and 60,000 miles "bumper to bumper" plus a 10 year/100,000 mile warranty for the drivetrain - vs. three-year/36,000 basic warranty for the Honda CR-V (five years, 60,000 miles on the drivetrain).

Same minimalist coverage on the RAV4 and Chevy Equinox - although the Equinox does come with a five year, 100,000 mile policy on the drivetrain. Still, the Mitsubishi is the clear leader in terms of backing what it sells. If something does break on the Outlander, you probably won't have to pay for it - at least, not before you've paid the thing off. With the Toyota, Honda and Chevy - you're on your own much sooner. As far as safety stuff, all Outlanders come standard with ABS and stability control, side-impact and curtain air bags, plus anti-whiplash head rests for the driver and front passenger seats. A rear back-up camera is bundled with the optional navigation system.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

presented bDiesel Pros and Cons

presented bDiesel Pros and Cons, Diesel-powered vehicles are making a big comeback - no surprise given renewed buyer interest in high-efficiency, long-life vehicles. But like gas-burners, diesels have their downsides as well as their upsides. Here's a look at both sides of the equation:


* Excellent fuel economy - with excellent performance - Many people remember the days when "diesel" meant "slow." But modern diesel engines such as those offered by VW (Jetta TDI) and BMW (330d) and Mercedes (E350 BlueTec) can deliver 40-plus MPGs - not far off the pace of complex, expensive and slow gas-electric hybrids - while getting the cars they're in to 60 mph in as little as 7 seconds.

In a large truck such as the current GM 2500 HD series or Ford F250, diesel-equipped versions can pull/haul much more weight than the gas-powered versions while burning less fuel doing it.

* Diesel engines are typically longer lived than gasoline-burning engines - Assuming proper maintenance, it is not unusual for a diesel engine to run 300,000 miles or more without needing major work. Even though modern gas engines generally last much longer than they used to, few can go more than 200,000 miles or so without beginning to show definite signs of wear and tear, such as smoky blue exhaust and declining gas mileage/performance.

* Diesels can burn more than one type of fuel - For example, old fry grease - aka Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO). Frugally-minded people have been powering their diesel vehicles with this stuff at little or no cost by getting local restaurants and so on to give it to them for free. Modifications to the engine (such as a preheater to keep the grease from congealing) will be needed, but you can operate a diesel engine with such stuff in a pinch. "Biodiesel" (not the same as WVO) can be brewed at home, too. Gas engines, meanwhile, are designed to burn gas only. And you can't refine your own gas, if it came to that.


* Diesel fuel is now more expensive than gasoline - New federal laws mandating "Ultra Low Sulfur" fuel (15 PPM sulfur) have jacked-up the price per gallon of diesel, which is still close to $3 per gallon in most areas of the country, while unleaded regular is often available for closer to $2.30 or so. The higher at-the-pump price eats into the down-the-road mileage advantage that diesels have.

Another potential problem with the new Ultra Low Sulfur diesel fuel is that it doesn't have the same lubricating qualities (due to the low sulfur content) as diesel fuel used to have, which could mean faster wear and tear - and shorter engine life. Some diesel engine experts recommend that additives (http://www.carmild.com) be used - especially in diesel engines built before about 1997 - to make up for the poorer lubricating qualities of the new Ultra Low Sulfur diesel fuel.

* Diesel engines now have cost (and hassle) adding anti-pollution equipment - In addition to Ultra Low Sulfur diesel fuel, the car companies have had to add urea injection and particulate traps to their diesel engines, in order to comply with the latest tailpipe emissions requirements. The urea tanks have to be refilled regularly - an additional expense (appx. $20-$40 or so each time) and the particulate traps add a new layer of maintenance - and thus, expense.

No one really knows, either, how these systems - and the diesel engines themselves - will hold up over the long haul, or under severe conditions such as extreme cold/heat.

* Diesels cost more "up front" than gas engines - I recently test drove a diesel-powered version of the 2011 Chevy Silverado 2500 HD equipped with the optional Duramax diesel V-8. Selecting this engine (and the mandatory heavy-duty transmission that it's paired with) added nearly $10,000 to the price of the truck. In a passenger car like the VW Jetta TDI, choosing the diesel over the gas engine adds about $2,500 to the sticker price.

The much higher up-front costs will take many years of driving to wash away in the form of at-the-pump savings on fuel - unless, of course, gas prices shoot up again to $4 (or more) per gallon. Which they very well could. In which case, everything changes. In a world of $4 or $5 per gallon regular unleaded, a diesel vehicle that gets 15-20 percent better mileage than a gas equivalent could work off the higher up-front costs in as little as a year or two of driving.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Break the Insurance Cartel's Power

Break the Insurance Cartel's Power
Break the Insurance Cartel's Power, A reader wrote in response to an article I did on the tyranny of mandatory insurance laws. He had been hit while on his motorcycle - and crippled for life - by an oblivious driver who ran a light. He told me he believes that not only should insurance be mandatory but that all drivers should be required by law to have at least $250k in liability insurance - or about twice the current maximums required in many states. There is a saying, "hard cases make bad law."

It means an emotional desire, in the wake of a horrible incident, to "do something" about it. This often takes the form of pushing for a new law to more severely punish those responsible for causing harm/damage - and also (so it's argued) to deter future such events from occurring at all by making it clear there will be serious consequences, etc. The problem as regards mandatory insurance - and specifically, mandatory "high coverage" insurance such as my reader wants, is that it assumes we're all dangerous/reckless/inept - and makes us pay through the nose accordingly.

But why should responsible drivers who do pay attention to their driving, who are skilled and attentive and who never get into at-fault accidents (millions of such people exist) be compelled to pay big bucks for insurance coverage that is massively expensive precisely because it is compulsory and forces them into the same risk pool with the irresponsible few such as the person who hit the guy in my example?

Granted, there is always some risk an accident or injury may occur - no matter how good the driver - anytime a person gets behind the wheel. But is it reasonable to base law on the exception rather than the rule? To require that people - everyone - insure against any conceivable risk, and to an extent that assumes the absolute "worst case" scenario?

Most of us have to strike a balance between our means and what we spend on various things. Many people would probably prefer to throw say an extra $50 each month at their mortgage balance (or the family food budget) rather than literally throw it away on an over-priced, compulsory insurance policy they will probably never need. If, that is, they were allowed to do so. The amount of money we are forced to spend on insurance - car insurance, health insurance, life insurance, home insurance, etc. - is enormous - and historically unprecedented. It's no wonder people are broke and in debt up to their eyeballs.

My argument, however is not with insurance per se but rather with it being compulsory as this is what has been driving the cost of premiums to ridiculous levels - even for good drivers with no history of at-fault accidents.

Personal anecdote: Even though I haven't had an accident in more than 20 years and have a "clean" driving record I still pay out more than $500 annually to insure my two trucks, plus another $300 or so for my three motorcycles. Compared to what some people are paying, it's not much - but over time, the cost is still high. If I could do so legally, I'd opt not to carry insurance for at least two of my motorcycles, which I rarely ride - and for one of my trucks, which mostly just sits in the garage. I judge the risk that I will have an accident with any of these vehicles to be very low, given that none of them sees more than 2,000 miles of road time each year and given that I am demonstrably a "good driver," based on my accident-free driving record.

But I'm forced to pay anyhow - just like everyone else.

With mandatory insurance, there is no incentive for the insurance industry (which has largely become a cartel) to price policies fairly or competitively because we're all forced to buy. Insurers can jack up our premiums over things like "speeding" tickets (often the result of deliberately under-posted speed limits) or even our credit rating that arguably bears no correlation to our driving skills or the likelihood we will cause an accident.

How many of us have been hit with a "surcharge" on top of our already high annual premium (which can easily be $1,000 or more per year for the average person with a late model car) merely because we had the misfortune to run afoul of a radar gun in a speed trap?

We know it's a scam. And there is only one way to cut the legs out from under it:

By allowing good drivers to say, "no thanks" to overpriced insurance coverage, insurance companies would be forced to offer more competitively priced policies to good drivers. Policies based on actual risk as determined by the driver's record of at-fault accidents. Not trumped-up "speeding" tickets.

And the bad drivers? They should pay according to their risk profile. And uninsured bad drivers?

If they cause damage or injury, they should be held responsible to the fullest extent of the law. If they have assets, seize them. If they work, garnish their wages. If they don't work - make them. Nothing wrong with making deadbeats clean up trash by the side of the road or dig ditches... whatever. Until the debt is paid off, no matter how long that takes. That's right and proper. But forcing others to pay for the irresponsible actions of others isn't.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Reviewing the 2010 Infiniti EX35

Reviewing the 2010 Infiniti EX35
Reviewing the 2010 Infiniti EX3, Why have car-based "crossover" wagons becoming so popular? That's simple enough. They're roomy like SUVs, usually look rugged like an SUV - and do about as well in the rain and snow as a truck-based SUV does - but without the truck-based SUV's typically clunky handling and hearty thirst for fuel. Almost all of them have one big downside, however.

That downside - if you're an enthusiast driver - is that nearly all current crossover wagons are based on front-wheel-drive layouts, usually with an all-wheel-drive system of some kind available optionally. If you want rear wheel drive (with a RWD-based AWD system) and the superior high-speed handling/balance that comes with it, you're pretty much out of luck. One of the handful of exceptions to this rule is Infiniti's rear-drive-based EX35


The EX35 is a compact, 5-door hatchback sportwagon - aka, a "crossover" - that differs from most crossovers currently on the market in that it's built around a rear-wheel-drive (instead of front-wheel-drive) passenger car drivetrain and chassis. As such, it offers performance/handling characteristics very much like a RWD sport sedan's. Main competition is the BMW X3 and the Mercedes-Benz GLK - both of which are also based on RWD layouts, but which lean more toward the SUV-like side of the aisle than the sport sedan side of the aisle.

WHAT'S NEW for 2010

The EX35 was introduced last year as an all-new model, so changes for 2010 are incremental. All trims now come standard with USB ports for the audio system and the optional GPS system has been updated with Real Time Traffic and Weather assistance.

Also new is a noticeably higher sticker price. The base 2010 model with rear-wheel-drive starts out at $33,800 vs. $31,900 in 2009. The range-topping Journey model with AWD is priced at $37,400 - vs. $36,850 in 2009.


Runs - and corners - like the G-series sport sedan it's based on. Brawny (297 hp) V-6 is standard equipment. RWD versions can do burnouts; AWD versions won't get stuck in the snow. Ingot-like solidity outside; beautifully crafted on the inside. Still a deal compared to the $38,850 BMW X3. Stronger than the 268 hp $35,500 Benz GLK.


The major uptick in price. Where's the six-speed on the floor? Drinks gas like a '76 Eldorado.


One of the EX's standout features is its high-powered (and standard equipment) 3.5 liter V-6. It is the same basic engine as used in the current G-series sport sedan, as well as the Nissan 370-Z. It's just slightly smaller in displacement and tuned-down a tad to just under 300 hp. Still, that's power enough to launch the EX from zero to 60 mph in about 6.3-6.5 seconds seconds (RWD versions are quickest), which makes the EX one of the fastest things going in its segment.

The EX's main competition - the 260 hp BMW X3 and the 268 hp Benz GLK - are significantly less powerful, much heavier - and not nearly as quick. The X3, for example, needs about 7.2 seconds to make it to 60 mph. However, you can get a manual transmission in the BMW (a feature not offered with the Infiniti). BMW also has an updated version of the X3 on deck for 2011 that will likely have more power, too.

Still, the EX is near the top of the pile as far as muscularity goes. Several FWD-based competitors like the Acura RDX and VW Tiguan don't even offer V-6 engines and their fours max out around 240 hp - not even in the same ballpark as the EX35's close-to-300-hp V-6.

A five-speed automatic is standard in the EX. It features "sport" programming that can be accessed by pushing a button on the console. This allows driver-control of up and down gear changes. There's also a "Snow" mode that starts the transmission out in second gear (and reduces the aggressiveness of throttle tip-in) to improve grip on slick surfaces.

The EX's optional AWD system differs from the more common (in crossovers) set-up in that, being based on a rear-wheel-drive layout, most of the engine's power goes to the rear wheels, most of the time. As the rear wheels begin to slip, some of the engine's power is automatically routed to the front wheels, to maximize traction. In front-wheel-drive-based systems, most of the engine's output normally goes to the front wheels, until they begin to slip - at which point the system kicks back power to the rear wheels.

What's the difference - and why does it matter? The RWD-based system (with most of the engine's power going to the rear wheels most of the time - and with the weight of the powertrain more evenly spread out from front to rear) gives better handling dynamics on dry, paved roads. A FWD-based system (with most of the engine's power going to the front wheels most of the time - and with most of the powertrain's weight on top of the front wheels) will give better grip on wet/slick roads, along with handling characteristics that are more forgiving of non-expert driver mistakes, such as carryinf too much speed into a decreasing radius turn. The RWD-based vehicle will tend to kick its tail out when this happens, which can be dealt with by applying more throttle and counter-steering. But this is a technique many average drivers haven't mastered. Which is why a FWD-based vehicle - which will typically understeer, or "plow" toward the inside of the turn taken with too much speed - is more controllable and thus safer for the average driver.

But there's a price to be paid - at the pump - for all this high-performance goodness. The EX wants premium fuel only and it wants it often. EPA rates this hawg at an impressively gas-guzzly 17 MPGs in the city and 24 MPGs on the highway. AWD versions knock it down to a suck-a-licious 16 MPGs in city driving and 23 on the highway. In the EX's defense, the X3 and GLK are about as bad, fuel-efficiency-wise. And they're not nearly as powerful - nor as fun to drive (see below). Still, Exxon-Mobil will just love you if you buy this ride.


The EX may be the best handling vehicle of its type on the road. RWD versions behave very much like a RWD sport sedan, which shouldn't be surprising given the EX's heritage. It is basically a wagonized version of Infiniti's excellent G-series sport sedan - and rides and drives very much like it.

Most crossovers are either SUVs in drag - or wanna-be SUVs based on FWD passenger cars. This forces compromises in driving dynamics for the sake of off-road/poor weather bona fides. For example, the BMW X3 - which, being based on a rear-drive layout is closest to the EX in concept - is available only with full-time AWD and is set up to be more of a sporty all-weather SUV than an out and out sport wagon like the EX35. The Benz GLK (based on the C-Class sport sedan) comes in both RWD and AWD versions, but the 30-something horsepower deficit gives the EX an obvious edge over the Benz sportwagon.

Further evidence of the EX's tilt toward the sport side of the balance sheet is its standard/available wheel and tire packages, which include dry road-biased and very high-performance "W" (up to 168 mph) speed rated 18-inch performance tires. The BMW X3's standard tire is only "H" (up to 130 mph) rated.

Other factors that affect handling feel/cornering prowess are ride height and weight. The EX35 sits much lower to the pavement, with only 6.5 inches of clearance vs. the X3's 8 inches (and nearly the same for the GLK, which has 7.9 inches of ground clearance). That is a significant difference you really can feel in a high-speed turn.

The 3,757 lb. EX35 is also much lighter than the downright fatty 4,012 lb. X3 and the nearly two-ton (3,979 lb.) GLK. The lower unsprung mass - and the higher output engine - endow the EX35 with a much more athletic feel.

If only Infiniti offered a manual transmission, this thing would really rock. Even so, the standard five-speed automatic gives the operator much more control over gear changes (when in Sport mode) than most other automatics - which frequently won't let you move down a gear (or up) until the computer decides you're at an acceptable road speed or RPM.

In the EX, you can drop down to (and hold) a lower gear sooner - and for longer - which almost makes up for the absence of a clutch.


The EX looks like what it is - a wagonized version of the G-series sedan. It's much more restrained-looking than the wild-child FX (the EX's big brother) which is even more wild-looking for 2010. The EX's look is less dramatic, but it's also less polarizing than the FX.

The interior layout of the EX is also similar to the way the G-series sedan's laid out. It is much less SUV (or even crossover) like and more sport sedan-like, with a curving "double wave" dash that flows into the door panels and recessed LCD display for the GPS in the center stack. It is finished with black lacquer and aluminum trim plates or - optionally - wood veneer inserts.

One area where the EX is lacking relative to competitors like the BMW X3 and Benz GLK is cargo capacity. Behind the rear seats, there's only about 19 cubic feet of space vs. the BMW's 30 cubic feet and the Benz GLK's 23.3 cubic feet. Also, the back seat area is noticeably tighter, too. There's just 28.5 inches of legroom for rear seat passengers vs. 35.8 in the X3 and 35.1 inches in the GLK. Max tow rating is 3,500 lbs. - same as the GLK and X3.


Though several Infiniti models are either based on or share major components such as platforms and engines with less prestigious Nissan-branded models, Infiniti does a very effective job of putting distance between them - and not just price-wise.

The base EX, for example, comes with a high level of standard amenities, including automatic climate control, electric sunroof, premium stereo with factory satellite radio hook-up, 17 inch alloy wheels and Infiniti's unique self-healing paint. The finish has high-elastic resins that let it expand to fill in small scratches without ever needing to visit a body shop - or get out the buffing compound. With a starting price point of $33,800 the EX is also considerably less expensive than its most direct competitor, the BMW X3 ($38,850 to start), even factoring in the not-small uptick in MSRP for 2010.

Lots of safety equipment - both built-in crashworthiness and active accident-avoidance features - is a given on a vehicle such as the EX35. But in addition to the things you'd find in ay other similar in price vehicle, such as high-capacity disc brakes with ABS, side-impact and curtain air bags, traction and stability control, the EX35 goes up another notch with an available full perimeter Around View camera system that gives you a 360 degree bird's eye look around the entire vehicle, as if you were floating 10 feet above it. It works when you're moving forward as well as backing up, too - and makes it almost impossible to not notice something that you might otherwise bump into or drive over.

The EX also offers an optional Lane Departure Warning that beeps at you if you wander too near the double yellow line in the road. And this system does more than just beep at you, too. If the driver doesn't make a steering correction to get the vehicle back on track, the system will do that for him - automatically.


The EX may look like a crossover SUV but it's really a sportwagon, with more power than most - and better reflexes than any (in its price range, at least). And that puts it in a class by itself.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Too Many Cars, Not Enough Market?

Too Many Cars, Not Enough Market? As we watch the slow-motion train wreck that is the dying global automotive business, it's easy to blame the economic situation for the debacle. And it's certainly a contributing factor. Or more precisely, an accelerating factor. It has made matters worse - and faster.

However, so far, there has been little discussion of the overcapacity issue that underlies the problem - and which is far more serious and which has been quietly bleeding the industry white for years now. What's "overcapacity"? Too many vehicles chasing not enough market.

The industry - that's all the carmakers put together - tries to sell on the order of 11-12 million new cars every year because that's how many cars they build. The problem is it's hard to sell that many cars, even in the best of times. And it's even harder to sell them at any kind of decent profit. For years now, the margins on most cars have been slim - and getting slimmer. Often as little as a few hundred bucks, net, per car.

Think how lousy a business that is. A car is a hugely complex thing comprised of thousands of individual components that must be manufactured at various locations and then assembled into a single unit. Literally thousands of people and several weeks (if not months) of assembly process are involved in the creation of a finished, ready-to-drive car.

Also, modern cars, once built, have an extremely long shelf life compared with the cars of the past. With decent care, they can (and do) last 15-plus years and more than 200,000 miles. But the auto industry continues to churn out new cars on the 1960s-era assumption that the entire fleet gets recycled every 5-7 years or so. Result? The inventory (new and used) stacks up. And yet, each year, it seems another automaker jumps into the already overcrowded waters with yet another model to compete against the existing multitude - making it ever harder to earn a buck off the already-there stuff.

There was an exception to this - SUVs - during the period that ran roughly from the early 1990s through last year. Profit margins on SUVs were huge - as much as $10,000 or more per vehicle on a high-end model such as a Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade. Why? Because at first, there were only a few SUVs on the market - far fewer (both model-wise and total numbers-wise) than the emerging market for them. So the automakers could charge more for them. SUVs were also easier and cheaper to build than passenger cars - which helped uptick the profit per vehicle. But the real reason they were such money-makers - at first - was because supply lagged behind demand. Now, of course, the market for SUVs is glutted, too. Which gets us back to the overcapacity issue.

The U.S. population has roughly doubled since the mid-1960s, going from around 160 million to over 300 million today. That's everyone - not just the people who are in the market for a new car - which of course is a much smaller number/percent of the total. But the number of active "players" in the US car market - brands of cars and types of cars - has expanded by triple or more during that same period.

In 1970, GM controlled about 50 percent of the U.S. car market; Ford and Chrysler each had about 20-something percent. AMC was a bit player. VW, Toyota, Honda and Nissan (then Datsun) hardly registered. And they produced small cars only - not the full range of models from econo-boxes to SUVs and luxury cars they offer today. Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Volvos were exotic curiosities one rarely saw outside of places like New York City and Los Angeles.

And of course, there was no Acura, Lexus, Infiniti; the luxury car market in the United States was the virtually exclusive province of Cadillac and Lincoln.

Within each model segment - mid-size family sedans, for example - there were typically three or four major contenders circa 1970. Today, there are more than a dozen contenders in this same segment - and it's similar in virtually every other segment. Meanwhile, the buyer pool has not increased in parallel with the increase in the number and types of vehicles being offered.

And of course, each vehicle sold these days tends to remain in service two or three times as long as the typical car of the '60s or '70s - which was beer can fodder by about 100,000 miles.

This combo - a surfeit of vehicles and a much slower turnover rate across the board, has created a much weaker, less solvent industry - precisely because the industry has given us cars that are so much better than they used to be in so many different varieties. Ironic, isn't it? Competition and consumer choice are good things, of course - but like many things, not to excess.

Some don't want to face up to this, however - most notaby orthodox "free market" theologians. It is anathema to them to even discuss the possibility that maybe there can be such a thing as too much choice. And even, perhaps, too much competition.

Why not allow the very same market forces that have given us so much choice to thin the herd? Billions of taxpayer dollars have already been thrown like so much confetti at the floundering automakers in order to assure that not a single car company goes under, economic viability be damned.

But this will only preserve a bad situation for a little while longer; the jobs supposedly saved will still be lost in the long run. Because the market's just not big enough to absorb 12 million new cars being added to the mix every year. Eventually, reality will have its way - but from the looks of it, not before we bankrupt ourselves in a last-ditch effort to deny the obvious.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Five Ford Fails

Five Ford Fails, America's Big Three have had more than their share of bad ideas over the past 20 years. Let's look at Ford's flops first.

* Lincoln Mark VIII (1993-1998) - This car snuffed what had been a successful franchise for Ford. In the '80s, the Mark VII (http://www.carmild.com) was thought of by many as an American take on the Mercedes-Benz SL500. Like the big Benz, it had the substantial look of a lead ingot carved with the precision of a laser beam. It was powerful, too. The car shared the same basic drivetrain used in the same-era Ford Mustang GT, including its High Output 5.0 V-8. It also had an air-adjustable suspension, bolstered euro-style sport buckets, a full gauge package and was one of the first American-brand cars to come with high-capacity four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS. The thing sold very well ... until Ford restyled it for the 1993 model year and christened the result the Mark VIII. This car looked like a Mark VII that had been left in the oven too long. *

Even though it had a much more powerful engine (Ford's new 4.6 liter "cammer" V-8 with 290 hp in the top-of-the-line LSC) its pulling power with buyers was far weaker than the old 5.0 powered Mark VII. After five listless years and ever-declining sales, Ford dropped the Mark - and dropped out of the luxury sport coupe market completely.

Ford said the market for high-end coupes just wasn't there. But it would have been more accurate to say the market for Ford-built high-end coupes wasn't there. Which brings us to our next contestant.... .

* Ford Thunderbird (2002-2005) - An icon was revived (briefly) that was greeted (initially) with lots of enthusiasm but which quickly became a horrendous money-loser for Ford - mainly because most people simply weren't willing to spend nearly $40k for a car that was "just" a Ford. Dealer gouging for the first cars off the line made it even worse. http://www.ridelust.com/wp-content/u...ue-top-off.jpg Most of them ended up just sitting there. And sitting there... .

Some industry analysts argued in their post mortems that the car might have done better had it been sold through Lincoln dealers. The thinking being that high-end customers expect a high-end dealership experience and the status that comes with a perceived "luxury" brand - which of course, Ford was not. And there was probably something to that. Of all the big bucks coupes out there, only Chevy gets away with selling $50k Corvettes through the same outlets that also sell $11,000 Aveos. But the Corvette can get away with it because it's an icon with a strong market presence that's largely the result of an unbroken history going back to the 1954.*The 'Vette never went away. *

By the time Ford brought back the T-Bird, no one - or at least not enough people to make the nut - cared anymore.

But probably even more lethal than trying to rebuild a long-dead franchise was the latter-day 'Bird's personality. While other modern cars have dabbled with "retro" design, the T-Bird really was retro all over. It seemed to be built for laid-back cruising - something almost no one does anymore. We live in a frantic, aggressive, stressful world. Few of us take our time doing anything - let alone driving. The latter-day T-Bird* was a joy to take out on the Blue Ridge Parkway or Skyline drive and amble along at 45 mph enjoying the scenery.

But it didn't feel right anyplace else. As a time machine, it was brilliant. Unfortunately for Ford, most buyers weren't looking for a $40k trip down memory lane.*

* Lincoln Blackwood (2002-2002) -* Who needs a $50k pick-up with a functionally useless bed? http://www.carmild.com Apparently, next to no one.

Lincoln's uber-luxury pick-up fell through the thin ice faster than a jumping up and down Oprah. It lasted just one year in production - a measure of the disastrous decision to build the thing in the first place.

The problem wasn't price; after all, Ford had no trouble selling Navigator SuVs for just as much. But unlike the Navigator, which could so some things, the Blackwood was useless for anything other than proving that rich people can be just as dumb as everyone else. Or maybe not - because this time, even the rich said no thanks.

The short bed was never intended to carry any of the stuff that pick-ups usually carry. Carpet, fine wood paneling, LED track lighting abd brushed metal trim don't exactly mix with stacks of 2x4s or bags of cement - or even a wet Labrador Retriever. That's if you could access the bed at all. To do that, you had to raise a clumsy, power-activated tonneau cover that further limited the already minimal usefulness of this "truck."

The piece de resistance? The Blackwood was sold as a 2WD only - making it the only full-frame, full-size truck which couldn't even be ordered with 4WD. Nothing like a 15 mpg, 2WD truck that can't carry (or even tow) much of anything and which is more skittery in snow than a '78 Caprice Classic with bald tires and an open rear end.* (See also: Mark LT.)

* Mercury Cougar (1999-2002) - Just keeping Mercury around is arguably one of Ford's biggest mistakes of the past 20 years.

Thirty or forty years ago, it made sense for Ford to have a "mid-level" brand - just as GM had Buick and Pontiac. Buyers often spent their entire car-buying lives within the Ford Family of Fine Cars, moving from Joe Sixpack Fords to almost-luxury Mercurys - and from Mercury to Lincoln, if they became successful enough. But that was before the flood of Japanese imports reduced Ford Motor Co.'s share of the American car market by more than half - and before buyers routinely switched brands if they found a better car somewhere else.

The last Cougar (http://www.carmild.com) was at least a unique model - unlike the previous versions, which began life in the '60s as tarted up Mustangs and went through the '80s as rebadged Thunderbirds. It actually wasn't a bad car; it's just that it wasn't an especially great one. Many saw it as a girl's car; others weren't sure about its iffy styling. Even Ford seemed unsure what to do with it.

In V-6 form, it offered decent get up and go, but Ford never developed it further. A performance-themed "S" version with a high-output engine and sport suspension was considered - and might have given the car some bona fides - but it never got released. So the Cougar just sat there, unsure of itself and without a real reason for its existence.

A hugely successful automaker such as Toyota can get away with some soggy offerings (for example, the ungainly Camry Solara) by dint of the vast pool of loyalists who just want a "Toyota" ... any Toyota. But Mercury hasn't got that kind of pull - and the cat that no one wanted was put to sleep after the 2002 model run.

* Lincoln LS (2000-2006)- This one's upsetting because the LS* had real potential. It might even have saved the brand - which today (late 2010) is on the verge of total collapse.

Arguably, the LS (http://www.carmild.com) was the best sedan Lincoln put out in 25 years. But the management eggheads decided to drop it instead of correcting the few relatively little (and easily fixable) things that were actually wrong with it.

The LS sedan was Ford's attempt to build a credible rear-wheel-drive luxury-performance sedan comparable to a BMW 3-Series. And it was credible - right down to its available manual transmission and trunk-mounted battery. Handling was excellent; ride quality very close to the best German sport sedans. Buyers could choose a punchy 252 hp V-8 if they sought more power than the 210 hp 3 liter V-6 offered. This engine was sourced from Jaguar's "AJ" series V-8 and had both the power and the sophisticated demeanor to stack itself up against the very best Euro powerplants of the era.*

As a driver's car, there was little to fault. The LS could corner; it had high-speed legs. It felt good when pushed. Motor Trend gave it "Car of the Year" honors its first year out. And yet, it failed. Que pasa?

Partially, a clash of car and brand - and buyer. Lincoln, as a brand, was not BMW - even if the LS, itself, was a credible BMW in training. Lincoln buyers were (and still are) mostly Blue Hairs and Bob Dole types who want soft seats, wire wheels and automatic transmissions. The typical Lincoln customer had about as much interest in a sport sedan like the LS as* Clay Aiken has in Pamela Anderson. And BMW buyers weren't crossing over, either.

The LS did have some flaws, too - in the cabin department especially. The layout and materials rose to the mediocre. While the handling/driving dynamics were good enough to play with the Bavarians, the interior was Wal Mart all the way.

Still, it was a damn good first effort - and given persistence and fixes where needed, Lincoln could have made a go of it. That's what a Japanese car company would have done (Lexus too was laughed at initially; no one's laughing now - least of all Ford shareholders). But as is usual practice for an American car company, Ford just gave up. Lincoln went back to selling overstuffed old man's cars - including the Zephry and MKS. And those may turn out to the last cars Lincoln ever sells, too.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cars That Drive Themselves

Cars That Drive Themselves, People seem to like this idea. It makes my flesh crawl. Well, maybe not that extreme. But the idea does depress me.

A big part of what makes driving enjoyable is the freedom and control it gives you, the individual. It is your car and you are in charge of directing its course, of deciding how to get there. You can choose your route and proceed at whatever speed seems reasonable to you. If you like, you can stop for a cup of coffee. Or to admire a scenic view.

You control your destiny. You are a driver.

If cars drive themselves, then you become a passenger. A passive pound of flesh transported by the intelligence of and under the direction of someone (or some thing) else. You get there when someone else decides you get there. You travel at the speed someone else (or a machine) determines to be the "right" or "safe" speed. There will be no stopping along the way; no taking the scenic route just because.

The only difference between an automated car and taking the bus is that you don't have some stranger sitting beside you coughing his flu all over your face. But the essential thing is identical. You have surrendered your autonomy; for the duration of the trip, your fate is out of your control. You are now a member of the Mass. One of Many, another sardine to be fileted and packaged and sent on its way. How is this appealing?

Oh, I know. It is more efficient. Automated cars can be slotted in tightly, perhaps just inches away from one another - and moved in synchronicity at high speeds, getting us there sooner and faster. More people can be moved more rapidly from A to B. There will be fewer accidents. More predictability. And much less joy.

Psychologists (and common sense) tell us that an important part of being human - or at least, an essential part of the human experience - is the exercise of personal mastery over external circumstances. To be able to do what you wish, according to your own lights. To enjoy the satisfaction that comes with learning a skill and exercising that skill. Of being competent. If you like to drive, you will understand what I mean.

There's the early thrill of being permitted to climb behind the wheel of a car for the very first time; of learning to shift and work a clutch. For many, this is a big step on the road from teenagerdom to adulthood. It is one of the first "grown-up" things many of us get to do during our adolescence.

Once the basics are down pat, we begin to acquire skills. We get better and better at timing our merges; of learning to judge in our heads just how much room we've got to pull into traffic - and how much speed we'll need to do it properly. A smartly executed fast pass or perfectly timed corner exit is a form of art in motion. Knowing you are a good driver - that you can handle it - is immensely satisfying.

Automated cars would take that all away. In effect, we'd be reduced to the state we were in as young children - when our parents buckled us in and took us for a drive when and how they wished. Our role was to sit quietly and await our arrival - more or less shut down in the meanwhile.

That's the Brave New World in store for us - perhaps just a few short years down the road. The gadgeteers are hard at work. Google - a new Dark Empire if ever there was such - has been field-testing driverless cars for months, apparently. Probably many people will welcome it.

They're already half-dead anyhow - sleepwalking through life with reel-loop videos of last night's game (another passive, life-through-others "activity') and a vague hunger for another fast-food meal rolling through their minds as they slog back home to the underwater McMansion from another day being told what to do and how to do it by impersonal others in their cubicles. For them, driverless cars are the logical end point. Why not? But not for me.

If the day ever comes when I am no longer permitted to operate my car myself, that will be the day I give up on driving - as such will have ceased to be possible anyhow. Maybe, in tribute to Edmund Ruffin, I will wrap myself in my shop manual and beat myself unconscious with a torque wrench. The New World isn't something I want to be conscious for anyhow.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Economy and The Classic Car Hobby

The Economy and The Classic Car Hobby, How has the bad economy been affecting the classic car hobby? On the upside, certain classic cars - especially muscle cars from the '60s and '70s - have suddenly become more affordable.

Though we've seen some of these - such as Hemi-equipped '60s and early '70s-era Chryslers - top $200,000 at auctions, these cars have always fundamentally been working and and middle class cars. While the value of especially rare ones - the Hemi 'Cudas and Chargers; 427 Super Yenko Camaros; Boss Mustangs, etc. - will always be high, the overall "price of entry" has been coming back to a more accessible level for many of these cars.

Even now - with the full extent of the economy's troubles likely only beginning to dawn on most of us - one can buy a regional show winning example of something like an early '70s Camaro or Chevelle for around $30,000. Even GTOs are becoming more reasonably priced - most of them, anyhow. (Convertible Judges and RA-IV models are still commanding Monopoly money prices.)

Overall, things are looking up. A quick survey of Hemmings classifieds, online classic car stores and the local Old Car Trader turned up several late '60s/early '70s Goats for $25,000-$30,000 or so. The number of ads in the $50,000 range and up seems to be declining.

This is bad news for the speculator class responsible for turning what used to be a hobby into an "investment opportunity" - but it's very good news indeed for the rest of us, especially those of us who were too young to get in on muscle car ownership the last time these things were semi-affordable, back in the late '80s/early '90s.

Yes, $30,000 or so is still a lot of money - but it's not out of sight. With financing (readily offered by many classic car stores) it's a very doable thing. And that's for for the more desirable late '60s/early '70s stuff - and for better condition stuff, too.

Look around and you'll see that solid "drivers" (cars with visual flaws that might not win a show but which are nonetheless presentable and can be easily fixed up to much better condition) are going for much less. $15,000 or so can buy you something very nice to play with, such as a mi-late-'70s Z28 with a 350 V-8 and 4-speed in solid "Number 2" condition.

The downside is that just as muscle cars are becoming more affordable for average people, average people are less and less in a position to buy one - or feed it. Unless you're very comfortably middle class - at the least - buying a classic car is hard to do. Especially if the wife gets wind of it. You want to spend $20,000 on .... what?

There's a mortgage to pay, bills coming in ... the kids' college fund. Not many of us have twenty or thirty grand in discretionary cash laying around - or can afford to fill up the 21 gallon (and premium unleaded only) tank of the typical V-8 muscle car. Still, the financial pendulum is swinging back toward affordability; you might not be able to drive it much - but you might be able to buy the thing.

So, if you've long wanted to own something cool from the classic era, you ought to be looking around now - and scraping together whatever available cash you can. Be ready - and jump on the opportunity when it presents itself. Because a gimpy economy notwithstanding, the dip in muscle car prices is probably temporary. They're not building any more of them, for one - and when the "investor class" recovers its nerves (and figures out a new way to fleece the rest of us) they'll be back.

And when they are, it'll be harder for average hobbyists to get closer to one of these greats than a glossy calendar posted in the garage...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reviewing the 2010 Hyundai Sante Fe

Reviewing the 2010 Hyundai Sante Fe Here's something uncommon: a manual six-speed transmission as an available feature in a medium-sized crossover SUV. The 2010 Hyundai Sante Fe is almost unique in this respect.But it's not the only area where the new Sante Fe offers something different - or simply more appealing.


The Sante Fe is a medium-sized, five-passenger crossover SUV available with front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive - and four or six-cylinder engines. It's about the size of a Chevy Equinox but costs less across the board. Base price for the four cylinder/manual-equipped front-drive GLS is $21,695 (vs. $22,615 for the Equinox).A top-of-the-line Limited with V-6 and AWD carries sticker price of $28,595 (vs. $29,970 for the similarly fitted out Equinox LTZ).


The Sante Fe gets two new engines as well as significant exterior and interior updates.


Available manual transmission adds a unique touch as well as sportiness. Standard four cylinder engine has enough power (175 hp) to make the optional V-6 unnecessary. Optional V-6 has enough power to make the Sante Fe downright quick. Gas mileage with this engine is almost exactly the same as it is with the four. More room for cargo than Equinox. Love the pull-out (vs. pull-up) handle for the rear liftgate.


Manual transmission only available in base GLS with front-wheel-drive and four-cylinder engine. All AWD (and V-6) versions require the automatic transmission. Less rear seat room than Equinox.


The Sante is available with either a four-cylinder engine or a V-6. The standard 2.4 liter engine produces 175 hp - making it among the strongest base/four-cylinder engines available in a mid-sized crossover SUV (the Chevy Equinox's 2.4 liter, 182 hp engine is number one on power - but just barely). It is offered with your choice of either a six-speed manual transmission (a very rare feature among vehicles of this type) or a six-speed automatic. You can select front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive; however, choosing AWD requires the automatic transmission - and bumps the Sante Fe's price to $24,695.

Acceleration and fuel efficiency are both very good with the base 2.4 liter engine. The four-cylinder Sante Fe can reach 60 mph in about 8.2 seconds, which as Hyundai likes to point out is actually quicker than last year's 2.7 liter V-6 powered Sante Fe. Fuel economy - 21 city/27 highway for the AWD version is also better than last year's 2.7 liter V-6 equipped Sante Fe (17 city/24 highway).

The optional 3.5 liter, 276 hp V-6, meanwhile, is much stronger than last year's 3.3 liter, 242 hp V-6 and the 2010 model's 60 time (about 7.8 seconds) should silence criticism of the old Sante Fe for being a bit of a dog (it was). Fuel economy with the new V-6 (20 city/26 highway) is also improved over the previous 3.3 liter engine (17 city/24 highway). The 3.5 liter engine comes standard with the new six-speed automatic and your pick of FWD or (optionally) AWD. Maximum towing capacity is 3,500 lbs. - par for the segment.


The new 2.4 liter engine is a big improvement over the previous 2.7 liter V-6. It's got enough power/delivers quick enough acceleration that you don't really need to upgrade to the optional V-6 (essential in the previous Sante Fe). The more advantageous gearing of the new six-speed transmissions (manual or automatic) means there's less RPM drop between each gear change, and this makes the Sante Fe feel quicker (and sound better) when accelerating rapidly.

The available six-speed manual transmission may not be high on most people's list of Must Haves, but it does add a degree of sportiness that's simply not offered in other medium-sized crossover SUVs - the vast majority of which are automatic-only (including the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4). In fact, you have to go down a size - and to something more wagon-ish, like the Subaru Forester - to find a clutch at all. The Sante Fe's optional V-6, meanwhile, is as powerful as the engines found in larger - and much more expensive - premium crossover SUVs like the Lexus RX350 (3.5 liters, 275 hp) and more powerful than the optional V-6s in direct competitors such as the Chevy Equinox (3.0 liters, 264 hp).

The six-speed automatic (standard with the V-6) shifts aggressively but not harshly; gear changes happen quickly but the transitions involve minimal driveline shock. It feels almost CVT-like when you're driving hard, but without the noise and harshness. You can control up and downshifts manually if you like but as with most modern automatics, it's not necessary. The transmission shifts better than you can on its own - though it can be fun to play with the "+" and "-" shift controls sometimes, too. The Sante Fe's ride quality and its overall driving feel are both comparable to anything else in the segment, with the biggest difference being the SF costs less.


The SF's exterior styling is fairly generic but nothing about it is disproportionate or ugly. It's less rugged and macho-flavored than the hunky Chevy Equinox but functionally it does as much or more than the Chevy in most respects. For example, it has more total cargo capacity (78 cubic feet vs. 64 for the Equinox) and noticeably more front seat legroom (42.6 inches vs. 41.2 inches).

However, rear seat legroom is significantly less in the SF than the Equinox - 36.8 inches vs. 39.9 inches. This is where Hyundai designers compromised - opting for more total cargo space at the price of cutting down on rear-seat accommodations somewhat. It's cozy in the second row - my knees just barely touched the front seatbacks - but not cramped. I'm well over six feet tall, so most people's knees won't touch the front seatbacks.

Nice features include air ducts built into the B pillars for the second-row passengers, which is better in my opinion than the more common ducts built into the back of the center console, which is mounted lower and thus sends a lot of the air to the floor area rather than more directly toward the people sitting back there. In the cargo area, there's a large hidden storage compartment under the floor that's handy for securing valuables out of sight. There's also a 12V power point back there, which is nice to have for tailgating.

Speaking of the tailgate - one of the SF's standout features is the pull-out handle to open it up.This design is very ergonomic; the hand placement (and lifting action) is much more natural - plus you don't have to fish around for a hidden/hard-to-see pull-up handle, as on may other crossover SUVs.

The layout of the interior - especially the dash area is modern and attractive. The center stack is canted slightly toward the driver, which is sporty and functional. Cool deep blue backlighting for the gauges and controls gives the cabin a high tech glow at night. The blue is also easy on your eyes.


Unlike early Hyundais - which were usually decent cars but with some obvious cheap-outs here and there - current Hyundais boast fit and finish, paint quality and overall attention to detail that's mostly as good as anything else in their price range - and sometimes even better. The SF's dash area, for example, has really rich-looking wood trim inserts (not the gauche-looking, obviously fake, overly-lacquered and shiny crap you find in some others - you know, the stuff that looks like a shellacked Elvis photo on an old piece of driftwood) and the dashpad is made of soft plastic as nice as you'll find in anything the SF competes with.

I searched the whole car over and the only small thing I found was a slightly rough body seam/join behind the liftgate. Nothing horrendous or functionally problematic. Just a slight echo of Hyundais-Gone-By.

What really matters, quality wise, is the superlative record Hyundai has earned in recent years - as measured by customer satisfactions surveys and the incidence or problems major and minor. People love their Hyundais - and if you research it a bit you'll find they have good reason to. Recent vintage Hyundais have a much better than average record for reliability and a low incidence of significant problems cropping up.

And there's no knocking the SF's standard five year/60,000 mile comprehensive warranty, or its 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain coverage. It simply cleans the clock of Toyota and Honda (which both offer puny three year/36,000 mile basic warranties) and is substantially better than the Chevy Equinox's three year/36,000 mile basic coverage (and five year/100,000 mile powertrain coverage).

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