Category: Ask Jack

By on September 21, 2017

1980 Cadillac Coupe deVille, Image: Wikimedia

If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I’m passionate about obtaining products, goods, and services that are Made In The USA. Which is not to say that I never buy anything from low-cost countries where workplace safety and environmental regulations aren’t up to snuff — to my eternal sorrow, both of my laptops are Chinese, and as many of you have reminded me, the new Silverado LTZ in my driveway was Hecho en Mexico — but in general I will pay a considerable cost in both time and money for an American or at least Western product.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m just doing it to be a total snob. Nowadays, Made In America tends to imply prestige and cost, whether we’re talking SK Tools, Alden boots, or any number of high-end, hand-made bicycles. If you’re walking down the street and everything on or about your person is USA-made, chances are you’ve spent some real money. That’s also true for many industrial goods, certain building supplies, and nearly anything with wings. There’s just one complex product where the American flag logo is attached to a mandatory discount in the minds of most consumers.

No prize for figuring out what that is…

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By on September 14, 2017

2018 Ford Mustang, Image: Ford

Everybody knows motorcycles are faster than cars, right? Except, of course, when they aren’t. On a dragstrip, under perfect conditions, with an immensely skilled rider and all the planets aligned, most of the modern literbikes can easily dispatch a Dodge Demon, McLaren P1, or Tesla P-whatever-Ludicrous-mode. If you can raise seven or eight thousand dollars in ready cash, you can walk into a motorcycle dealership and walk out with a new bike easily capable of breaking into the tens. On the roll, something like my Kawasaki ZX-14R can accelerate to a degree impossible with something like a LaFerrari — I know, because I’ve driven a LaFerrari and ridden my ZX-14R on the same roads.

So why isn’t the whole world, or at least the male half of it, on a sportbike every morning? You know why. They’re dangerous, even if you take pains to ride safely and sanely. They are sensitive to weather, road condition, and high winds. They are remarkably maintenance-intensive. They get stolen. You can’t carry much on them and you can’t travel spontaneously on one. Comfort is an issue. If you’re a track rat, then you know that mistakes on two wheels are far more likely to put you on the LifeFlight than their four-wheeled equivalents.

TANSTAAFL — There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, particularly when it comes to using a motorcycle to do a car’s job. Yet the rush of riding a truly fast bike with all cares thrown to the wind can be a needle to the main vein for adrenaline junkies. Which brings us to this week’s question, in which a complimentary pairing of the Most Sensible Vehicle On Earth with something considerably crazier is considered.

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By on September 7, 2017

Autobahn, Image: Wikimedia

I spent a fair amount of time on the Autobahn this summer, including several hundred miles on the unrestricted sections. I can’t say that I went all that fast — I think I saw 260 km/h once, trying to get to a Pizza Hut near the border with Belgium that was about to close. Other than that I rarely went above 200 km/h. The only excuse I have for this is that I’m old and tired and I had a bunch of broken ribs at the time.

There’s also the inconvenient fact that the freeways are just as crowded over there as they are here, and the lane discipline hasn’t been so good in recent years due to demographic and educational changes in Germany. Still, once in awhile you can find yourself in those oh-so-stereotypically Deutsch situations of which you dreamed as a child. There was a particularly memorable afternoon where I relaxed in the passenger seat of an E43 wagon and watched my co-driver chase a Swiss-plated Phantom for over an hour at sustained triple-digit speeds. I was working my way through a bag of those Babybel cheese things. Good times.

My long-time correspondent and pal Luigi knows all about those kind of good times. He’s been around the world working different gigs. Now he’s considering settling down for a while in der Vaterland and buying a big, thirsty car for big, fast cross-Continental commutes.

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By on August 29, 2017

2017 Honda CR-V - Image: Honda

The narrowing of possibilities, the hardness of the automaker heart, the motions of grace. Or something like that. Imagine you’re a prospective Chevrolet buyer in 1955 or thereabouts. You can order your new car in at least the following styles: club coupe (two doors, B-pillar), utility sedan (two doors, wood platform in place of back seat, rear windows do not roll down), four-door sedan (four doors, B-pillar), sport coupe (two doors, hardtop without B-pillar), sport sedan (four doors, hardtop without B-pillar), station wagon (four door wagon), Handyman wagon (two door wagon with straight C-pillar), Nomad wagon (two door wagon with slanted C-pillar and unique roof), and sedan delivery (two door wagon with no glass in back).

Today’s logical, if depressing, successor to that ’55 Chevy is the Equinox. It comes in one flavor: bland box. Period. Something happened. Just what was that something? Read More >

By on August 24, 2017

20-2014-jeep-cherokee-chrome-grille

Years from now — perhaps even now, for the younger generation — I think people will have trouble understanding that a significant percentage of humanity used to derive a good living from arbitrage of one form or another. We live in a world now that has been effectively flattened by the standardized shipping container and the Internet. It was not always so. Think of Max Hoffman towing one Beetle behind another one all the way from an East Coast port to a Midwest town then taking the train home.

Even more interesting is that people used to be accustomed to paying money for information and/or access to knowledge. For instance, my old pal Alex Roy grew up in his father’s business, Europe By Car, which was (and still is) a service that arranged overseas rentals for American customers. Can you imagine that there was once a time when people couldn’t just click a couple of buttons and have a rental car waiting for them in London or Stuttgart? Crazy, I know.

The imperial ease with which we command the delivery of things from China or arrange hotel rooms in Zurich from the comfort of our living room in Milwaukee sometimes blinds us to the fact that sometimes you just have to deal with the impacts of distance and displacement. Our friend Brent is experiencing one of those times, at least by proxy.

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By on August 17, 2017

2011 Hyundai Sonata

After 45 years on this earth, I have come to a conclusion that is neither unique nor universal but which has considerable truth to it, regardless: The kind of stuff that alarms regular people rarely alarms experts on the subject — and vice versa. It’s true in scientific disciplines from materials science to artificial intelligence, it’s true when it comes to medical and health issues, and it’s true in matters of the law and governance. We can also add a corollary to this: Even when the experts and the regular people are both alarmed, it’s usually not for the same reason.

The idea of corporate personhood is an example of the latter. It’s common for lightly-educated political activists to screech, “CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE!” — as if corporations had managed to start operating autonomous bipedal robots that walk among us as men and women. What they fail to realize is that corporate “personhood” actually protects both individual humans and society as a whole. As a ridiculous example to the contrary, Prince Charles and I both have the same “cutter” at Turnbull & Asser, a certain Mr. Steven Quin. He is the Royal Warrant Holder as an individual. In an earlier age, an English king could presumably have had him physically punished if his shirts didn’t measure up, as the Warrant is a transaction of sorts between a member of royalty and a subject of royalty.

While it’s very satisfying to extend this to the modern era and to imagine the CEO of BP being keelhauled for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the fact is that without corporate personhood the responsibility for something like that would be placed on a “fall guy” or corporate sacrificial lamb — leaving companies free to break the law at will so long as they had access to people who were willing to go to jail on their behalf.

With that said, there is plenty of justified concern about some consequences of corporate personhood, most specifically as it applies to First Amendment issues and political contributions. Today’s question addresses yet another aspect of the corporation-as-individual. More precisely: Do we have a moral duty to a corporation? If so, to which one is that duty owed?

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By on August 9, 2017

EcoBoost Mustang Burnout

True story: I once dated a woman who liked to kinda-semi-roleplay that I was Hannibal Lecter and she was Clarice Starling. I don’t mean that I served her anybody’s frontal lobe with a nice Chianti and some fava beans, but more that we would try to work phrases from the book into our conversations. Just in case you are wondering, this is a distant second place in the awkward-makeout-talk category of my sordid personal history, well behind the woman who wanted me to call her Bella while she called me Edward.

In Silence Of The Lambs, Dr. Lecter tells Clarice, “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” This is one of those statements that is almost too true for us to understand. We learn to want things by looking at them. It’s why very few people have whatever mental quality is required to order, and enjoy, truly bespoke items — cars, clothing, bikes, guns, watches, whatever. We like to see things and choose from them. It’s a combined limitation of the software (ability to imagine) and the hardware (the way we “see” is fairly hard-wired into our actual, physical eyes in all sorts of ways that we are just finding out about now) that comes standard with the human body.

The mere act of seeing something can be persuasive, even if we know in our heart that it’s not right for us — which was certainly the case with the Bella-and-Edward woman, I tell you. And that is how we come to this story of a fellow who wants a very specific kind of brake for his car… even if it’s not nearly enough to do the job.

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By on August 2, 2017

2015 Dodge Charger V6 AWD Rallye (8 of 13)

Politics, the man once said, is downstream from culture. It applies to cars as well. Maybe cars are in fact downstream from both politics and culture. You never know.

Everybody who was alive in the 1950s tells me it was kind of a dicey time. Children kneeling beneath a combined 1.25 inches of plywood that was supposed to have some sort of palliative effect on a locally detonated hydrogen bomb with a thousand times the power of Little Boy. The Iron Curtain clamping down across Europe, hundreds of millions of people disappearing into a regime where twisted social science operated a political machine lubricated liberally by the blood of kulaks and a generation of Soviet O’Briens insisting they could float off the ground if they just wished it so. Meanwhile, the United States was grinding through the task of reintegrating a few million young men who had often gone directly from their shoeless rural existence to the meat grinders of Iwo Jima and Normandy Beach.

Yet I defy you to look at a ’57 Chevrolet and not tell me somebody was feeling optimistic. The roads were covered in pastels and chrome and the good times were surely just around the corner. It was as if the styling chiefs of the Big Four (or however many there were) looked at the world around them and said, “Oh, the hell with this, let’s PUT FINS ON CARS!”

Sixty years later we’ve got all the Netflix and chill we can handle but most people look at the future as something that will impoverish, assail, endanger, or boil them. The climate and the economy seem to have more malevolence than the old Soviet shoe-bangers could ever muster but, instead of responding with Bel Airs, we’ve all decided to lock ourselves into tall, tippy metal boxes that promise to isolate us from every possible contaminant or concern. Each box must be sufficient for all imagined tasks, whether it’s clearing the Rubicon or circling the Nurburgring.

Most of these things scale half a ton more than a ’76 Cutlass Supreme Brougham with the 403. They are chock full of features we neither need nor want, and the hunchback king of those assembled unnecessaries is called All. Wheel. Drive.

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By on July 27, 2017

2016 Chevrolet SS - Image: GM

Last week, we discussed the fact that the gap between automotive perception and automotive reality can lead to some remarkable cognitive dissonance on the part of “car people.” That’s why the breadvan Civic Si was sold as a budget-priced Bimmer-beater and the breadvan Scion xB was sold as a Portland-friendly mobile Millennial drum circle. They knew very few Civic “intenders” would look at a Scion and vice versa.

This sort of stuff runs rampant in the business and, if you want any further confirmation of it, just take a look at the staggeringly different demographic profiles for the mechanically similar Cadillac Escalade, GMC Yukon Denali, and Chevrolet Tahoe Premier.

But wait, there’s more. Thanks to a wide variety of advances in materials, design methods, and computing power, the capability envelope of modern vehicles is expanding in all directions. My 2017 Silverado 6.2-liter just got an average of 22.1 mpg on a 680-mile drive from Ohio to South Carolina; my 2006 Phaeton got 17 mpg flat on the same trip despite being a thousand pounds lighter, 100 horsepower weaker, and considerably more aero-friendly. Next week, you’re going to hear a lot about how the Audi TT-RS is faster than (insert name of supercar here) from 0-60. Much of that will be regurgitated pablum from a staggeringly expensive press trip that includes a private helicopter ride from Manhattan to Lime Rock, and some of it is due to advances in tire tech, but there’s some real truth to the fact that the mighty Ferrari Enzo can be humbled in a short sprint by a car that is basically a VW Jetta in a party dress.

As cars become more capable, they are also going to engage in hitherto-unseen marketplace conflicts. Should you buy a 7 Series Bimmer or a Denali XL? A Corvette or a Macan Turbo S? Which brings us to today’s unusual matchup… but before we click that jump, here’s a reminder to send your most burning questions to askjack@calamarco.com.

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By on July 21, 2017

Scion xB, Image: Toyota

If you’ve read enough of my writing, then you know that I am a fervent believer in what I call the power of the story. Human beings rarely interact directly with reality; instead, we use stories to interpret what we are seeing in a way that makes sense. It’s why we no longer fear thunder and why people will cheerfully take food prepared for them by strangers.

Few aspects of our existence are as relentlessly story-driven as our interactions with the automobile. Without the power of story, we would see automobiles as nothing but machines for accomplishing a particular task, be it a commute, a vacation, or an SCCA race — and we would judge them solely on their ability to accomplish that task. Trust me, if we all did that it would be absolutely ruinous for the automaker profit margins out there. Imagine picking a car the way you’d pick a dishwasher or, um, a power supply. You would quickly forget about intangibles and focus on fitness for purpose.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve tried to shed my personal addiction to the automotive narrative and learn how to “understand the thing for itself,” as Marcus Aurelius wrote. This can lead to some surprising conclusions… and it looks like I’m not the only one who has acquired at least a little bit of this skill. Normally we wouldn’t do two Ask Jack columns in one week, but the fellow in this case says he’s going to make a choice this weekend, so let’s pull the trigger pronto and get right to the question.

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By on July 18, 2017

winter driving snowy road (public domain)

Quick now: Just how full is your refrigerator at this precise moment? I mean, it is kinda full, is it sorta full, is it totally full, is it almost empty, does it have the bachelor’s portion of beer and Cretaceous takeout? The reason I ask is because when I visit my more successful friends I’m simply bowled over by the amount of empty refrigerator space they have. Double and triple Northlands or Vikings with nothing in them. Deep stacks of empty shelves. Sometimes they have empty sections, doors behind which the air is chilled to 33 precise degrees but where nothing is stored.

My friends tell me that they need the space for the parties and gatherings they are going to have. I refrain from pointing out that in the modern suburban era nobody ever goes to anybody else’s house unless it is on pain of death/shunning/shaming. That gregarious age documented by Updike and Cheever is long gone. My friends won’t be hosts. Nobody’s coming to the parties that they won’t really have. All of that empty fridge space will always be empty. They spend most of their nights on “foodie adventures” anyway, spending massive amounts of money to avoid being trapped in their homes with only Netflix to fill the gaps in their meaningless conversations. And it’s only the two of them anyway, plus one designer baby after the wife turns 38 and panics.

I feel very virtuous, almost Spartan, because I only have a single-width Sub-Z from about 15 years ago. And my fridge is relatively full. But still there’s empty space. Sometimes Danger Girl goes through and tosses a half-ton of expired food. Still more fridge than we need. Compare that to the fridge at my grandmother’s house. She had four boys living in the house. Six people to my three. And her fridge was under six feet tall. With two cramped compartments. How did she do it, particularly given the fact that she cooked a real dinner, a real lunch, and a real breakfast every night? How did she survive on one-fifth the frosted space available to my DINK foodie friends?

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By on July 5, 2017

2016 Dodge Charger R/T, Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

It’s the kind of story dealership employees love to tell during slow afternoons: the decade-old car with an MSO (manufacturer’s statement of origin, which is what cars have before they have titles) in the glovebox, no air in the tires, and 3 miles on the clock, tucked in back with the service loaners or parked behind the body shop.

As with most car dealer fairy tales, there’s plenty of real-world inspiration for the (usually fabricated) story of the moment. In the days when dealerships tended to own their inventory rather than have it “floorplanned” with a bank, and before the manufacturers came up with the idea of revving up secret incentives to sell leftover cars from the previous model year, it wasn’t all that uncommon for a dealer to have an 18-month-old car somewhere on the lot. It wasn’t just the “megadealers” — truth be told, those were the guys who usually had a better handle on a computerized inventory system. I’ve seen everything from ancient (Mercury) Mariners to Old (smobile) Achievas sitting around way past their sell-by date.

Nowadays, the banks and the dealer groups keep a pretty tight rein on their inventory. Cars just don’t get “forgotten” like they used to. Still, there are times when something slips through the proverbial cracks. Should you take advantage of this “mistake”? In this case, I’m asking for a friend, and I’m also asking for myself…

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By on June 27, 2017

Fourth-generation Volkswagen Golf, Image: Volkswagen

It’s called “optimism bias”, and for a while it fell into the realm of what people like to call “settled science.” Supposedly, humans are “hard-wired” to be more optimistic in any given situation than a realistic appraisal of the circumstances would justify.

This is why people buy lottery tickets, which are statistically equivalent to toilet paper. It’s why I continue to ride a BMX bike at skateparks even though I’m far more likely to endure yet another painful injury than I am to perform anything like a respectable stunt. It’s why people respond to “casual encounters — w4m” ads on Craiglist even though forty-nine out of fifty ads are utterly fraudulent attempts to steal anything from your wallet to your personal data to your kidneys.

But wait, there’s more. A new study suggests that optimism bias is more an artifact of bad experiment design than a reflection of actual human predisposition. Who’s right and who is wrong? I’m optimistic that we will eventually know the truth. In the meantime, let’s consider a question that verges on the outrageously hopeful…

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By on June 20, 2017

San Francisco, Image: Wouter Kiel/Flicker (CC BY 2.0)

I will forever remember San Francisco as the only city in America where a woman tried to pick me up. While I am sure that the average TTAC reader is a handsome, impeccably progressive feminist ally who is frequently the subject of overtures from empowered womyn, I’m a hideously ugly creature who walks with a pronounced limp and cannot help but maintain an expression of perpetual annoyance. Therefore, 99 percent of the time I have to actively, if not aggressively, sell myself to any potential paramours.

Except, that is, for that one night when I was drunkenly stumbling down some broad boulevard in downtown SF, feeling very sorry for myself, and an attractive woman in her early thirties, dressed for some sort of banking or C-suite work, walked right up to me and said, “Do you know where the nearest Bank of America is?” Even in my inebriated state I could see that it was three hundred feet behind her, and I said as much. “Gosh, thanks!” she chirped. “So… lovely night, huh? What are you doing this evening?”

“Madam,” I replied with all the 18th-century dignity I could muster, straightening my posture and inhaling deeply behind the lapels of my Brioni coat, “I am attempting to forget a woman from Tennessee.” And I trudged past her. Only the next morning did I realize that perhaps she had already known the whereabouts of the bank before asking. Oh well. Ever since then, however, I have assumed that the relatively low number of even remotely conventional men in that particular city drives women to make desperate choices.

Which brings me to today’s San Francisco treat of a question.

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By on June 13, 2017

2018 Toyota Camry and Camry Hybrid, Image: Toyota

“The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That’s pride f***ing with you. F*** pride. Pride only hurts. It never helps.” Recognize that quote? It’s from Pulp Fiction, of course. There’s only so much wisdom you can take out of any Quentin Tarantino movie, but if you’re looking for some, there it is.

Unfortunately for you earnest advice takers out there, the auto business runs on pride. From the websites to the styling studios, from the wash rack to the RenCen, you’ll find insecure, petty, miserable people who allow their perpetually wounded pride to make astoundingly indefensible business decisions on their behalf. Here’s an example: I once worked at a dealership that was pretty much run into the ground by a pair of incompetent, dishonest managers. The owner was despondent and he had pretty much decided to sell the franchise, but at the last moment he changed his mind, took some good advice, and brought in a fellow who was kind of a superstar but also kind of a loose cannon. Read More >

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