Category: No Fixed Abode

By on April 17, 2017

Toyota Test Drive Track at NYIAS, Image: Twitter by New York International Auto Show

Walking through Brooklyn, your humble author was confronted by a sign on a building that said, “We stay awesome 24/7, but we are only available in person,” followed by the company’s business hours. There are two ways to view that sort of arrant idiocy. The first is to shrug one’s shoulders and just chalk it up to the sort of cutesy, infantile, Millennial-focused marketing that has turned Brooklyn from a place where my mother was actually shot at in 1970 merely for wearing her Women’s Army Corps — but Mommy’s neither one of those, I’ve known her all these years! — Class A officer’s uniform to a sort of supervised playground for losers whose sheltered ineptitude has combined with the realities of a flaccid job market to suspend them in kindergarten gaffa until the parents run out of home equity with which to sustain them.

(That’s quite a sentence there, ain’t it? You won’t get combinations of Cheap Trick and Kate Bush jokes in Motor Trend, trust me.)

Alternately, you can be a bit more perceptive and/or distrustful about the whole matter. You might take it as a sign of a corporate culture where employees are, in fact, expected to “stay awesome 24/7,” where everybody is judged on how infrequently they have an incorrect thought, even when they are off work. We’re rapidly approaching a day where we are never truly away from our jobs. You can be fired from your job for simply saying something that people don’t like during your private time; several years ago I had a public Facebook argument with two car-magazine writers that resulted in one of them calling my day job and making a “special request” to have me fired. (He was told to get stuffed, by the way.)

In other words, we now live in a world where corporations expect to have the kind of control over reality that was once just the nightmare imagination of George Orwell. Everything is now “curated,” which is a nice way of saying controlled. And that, in a nutshell, is why most of the “New York auto show” did not actually happen at the New York Auto Show.

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By on March 31, 2017

Project Cars on Craigslist

I was still in my 20s, browsing my local library’s jazz catalog with what I hoped was an open mind, when I found Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter In America” tucked between Wynton Marsalis and Chick Corea. I had a vague idea of who Scott-Heron was from my years in school, so I snagged it, put the CD in my Fox on the way home, and I was … struck dumb. This was something new for me, both musically and politically. In the years since, I’ve often thought that if God truly loved me he would have given me Gil Scott-Heron’s steady baritone instead of my over-modulated tenor.

In the years that followed, I persevered as a fan of Scott-Heron through the man’s ups and downs. Shortly before his death, he stunned me and everybody else again with I’m New Here, a heartfelt but judiciously studied effort that was aimed with laser precision at rap fans and the regular-at-Yoshi’s crowd alike. In that album’s title track, Scott-Heron gathers up what is left of his voice and growls, “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / you can always turn around.” It was a knowingly ironic statement from a man who could clearly foresee his imminent death from AIDS-related complications, but it was also a final benediction, a last bit of weary advice from a man who had long viewed himself as a prophet without honor in his own community.

That phrase — “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / you can always turn around” — has weighed heavily on me lately, for any number of reasons. I have a few friends, some more dear to me than others, who would benefit mightily from a serious application of that advice. But since this is at least nominally a blog about cars, let’s talk about what it means to our four-wheeled decisions, instead of how it might apply to relationships that should have been dropped in the Marianas Trench years ago.

Yes, let’s do that.

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By on March 3, 2017

Enjoy The Freedom of a Car Postcard, Image: "Free!" (CC BY 2.0) by Payton Chung

“One day in Maryland about four years ago, Carr was teaching his 16-year-old daughter how to drive when two police cars went rocketing by on the interstate, doing 80 in a 55 mph zone without lights on.” From that tiny seed — which, let’s face it, is planted about fifty thousand times a day on American roads — a great tree grew. Soldier and veteran Glen Carr now spends a significant portion of his time photographing illegally-parked police cars. It’s hard to think of a more quintessentially American thing: a man comes back from war and decides to fixate on some injustice, major or minor. It’s a story that in various forms has underpinned everything from Victorian novels to the movie Walking Tall.

What makes Carr’s jihad so engaging and admirable? Perhaps it’s the certain knowledge that he is doomed to fail. At best, he’s gonna get tired of documenting these quotidian injustices. At worst, some cop is going to shoot him dead when Carr pulls out his camera then claim he thought it was a gun. You can’t fight City Hall. Illegal vehicle operation by police officers isn’t going to stop any time soon. It might not stop until every cop car is fully autonomous. Maybe not even then. Does everybody remember the quote from Blade Runner? “If you’re not a cop, you’re little people!”

Meanwhile, for the little people in the UK, things are about to get significantly more strict.

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By on February 14, 2017

Premier Badge on 2017 Chevrolet Tahoe, Image: © 2017 Mark Stevenson/The Truth About Cars

Now after all these years, and no matter what damage it does to the B&B’s conception of me as a redneck reactionary from Bumpkin, Ohio, the story can finally be told: I was a full thirteen and a half years old when I first set foot in an honest-to-nine-pound-baby-Jesus pickup truck. Not the front seat of said all-American conveyance, mind you. The bed of a pickup truck.

The scenario was this: At the time, my high school was about 50-percent residents of a new tournament golf course and about 50-percent residents of the farms that didn’t get absorbed into said course. My pal Brent was dating a hillbilly girl from across the tracks. She had a stunning friend. I suggested a double date. The friend agreed, presumably driven by the kind of self-destructive farm-bound boredom that makes rural kids steal tractors, torture animals, and ingest crystal meth.

One of the girls’ fathers agreed to drive us to the local theater. He showed up at my friend’s house behind the wheel of a light-blue Dodge Ram 150 2WD Regular Cab, festooned in country fashion with a bubble-windowed cap in a fetching combination of gloss white and dull rust. There were silhouettes moving behind those bubble windows. I turned to run; I’d heard a plot summary of Deliverance from my father. But my friend grabbed my shoulder and dragged me to where the overalls-wearing father was dropping the tailgate to reveal not a pack of snarling hounds or a toothless rapist but our dates for the evening, prettily perched on a pair of carpeted boxes covering the wheelwells. “Get in,” Farmer Dad growled.

“I … don’t think I can,” I replied.

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By on January 31, 2017

The Mazda MX-5 RF, Image: PRNewsFoto/Mazda Motor Corporation

It’s one of those mysteries that’s really only mysterious to people who don’t understand the American auto market: Why didn’t Mazda bring us the NB-generation coupe? And why didn’t they make a true NC coupe at all? The answer, of course, is very simple. The United States is a big place with unique regulations. If you want to sell a car here, particularly one that would crash differently from the car you’re already selling, you’ve got to put in some real time and money for compliance with those regulations.

There’s also the matter of scale. It’s not that difficult for Mazda to release a small-batch car like the NB coupe in Japan where it has absolute control of the dealer networks and the ability to ship parts from a central warehouse to a service area that’s about 10 percent smaller than the state of California. Things are different in the land of the PowerStroke. Every new vehicle is a major commitment.

Mazda’s product planners didn’t think a hardtop Miata would sell in significant numbers, so they left it at home. The retractable-top NC Miata, on the other hand, was a great idea and it did very well. And now we have a far handsomer take on the same idea, built on a car that most of the pundits agree is a better and more enjoyable drive than its predecessor. So what’s the problem?

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By on January 24, 2017

Trabant 601deluxe Universal, Modell 1970, By Deluxe602 at de.wikipedia (Original text : S.M.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

“Like any good capitalist, I firmly believe that automakers need competition to produce their best and most innovative work.” That’s what my colleague and occasional pal Stef Schrader on Jalopnik wrote yesterday, in a column titled Protectionism Is Only Good If You Love Really Terrible Cars. I doubt neither Stef’s sincerity nor her diligence; she hits all the traditional marks in her piece, from Allegro to Trabant, and she does it with style.

I am not a good capitalist. Not any longer.

For most of my life, I was; I’ve been mostly self-employed since I was 19, and I’ve never asked for help from anybody save for three weeks’ worth of unemployment payments in 1995. I always looked at life as a battle that went to the strongest, and I never felt inadequate in the face of the challenge.

Once I became a father, however, I started wondering about my son’s prospects, and the prospects of his contemporaries. What if they didn’t have the strength, or the luck, that I’ve had? Should they be just tossed aside by the global economy, discarded forever just because they couldn’t win a race to the bottom with seven billion other desperate souls?

If the former president of the Miami University Entrepreneurial Society (yes, guilty as charged) can read Adbusters and start worrying about factory conditions around the globe, perhaps that means everything out there is up for grabs. And it’s worth asking the question: Could a new round of protectionist policies, intelligently conceived and applied, change our lives as drivers, consumers, and workers — for the better?

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By on January 17, 2017

2016 Nissan Frontier

Some people have one mid-life crisis; I’ve had a series of them, rearing their ugly heads in widely disparate manners, off and on over the past 20 years. In fact, I’m now having midlife crises that are repeats of previous crises.

Example: After a fairly successful knee surgery last month, I decided to buy some new BMX bikes and go riding again, the same way I did back in 2001 or thereabouts. Last time, my partners in this ill-advised venture were a bunch of Bolivian pro BMX racers whose constant orbits around my house combined with the glossy presence of a CL55 AMG and an Audi S8 in my driveway to convince my neighbors that I was involved with the cartels. This time, my main homeboy is my seven-year-old son, newly mounted-up on a watermelon-green Sunday Primer 16 skatepark bike.

The last time I got this serious about riding, I bought a Nissan Frontier. This time I’ve thought long and hard about doing something similar. True, I have a very nice Tahoe Z71 as part of the dowry from my recent marriage, but driving anything as profoundly elephantine as a Tahoe depresses the hell out of me. What to do?

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By on January 11, 2017

Child with mother in 2018 Honda Odyssey, Image: American Honda

Here’s a free lesson in life that you can use everywhere you go: corporate “morality” is almost always both flexible and highly subject to local gravitational influences. How else to explain the red-white-and-blue-painted previous-generation Camry, festooned with traditionally American imagery, that greeted visitors to the Detroit show on Monday? Maybe Toyota had two of them ready to go after the election, the way that T-shirt manufacturers prepare for both Super Bowl winners. Presumably the other Camry was a triple livery; the first third would have been a rainbow flag that called to mind both #LoveWins and #JeffGordonDivorce, the middle third would have been totally Islammed-out with the star and crescent just like my old Pakistan Express race car, and the trunk area would have paid tribute to the #ShoutYourAbortion movement while also tipping its fedora to written consent in triplicate for all sexual encounters.

Ah, but if wishes were fishes they would have served cruelty-free salmon at the meeting of the Electoral College. So the various pampered-but-oh-so-woke “journalists” attending the NAIAS were forced to taste the salt of their own bitter tears streaming down their cheeks as every manufacturer with even a token presence in the United States waved the red (imperialist), white (racist), and blue (sexist) flag in their press conferences.

Naturally, Honda sent one of the strongest messages; it’s arguably the most American automaker on the God Emperor’s green earth and the bulk of the cars it sells here were designed, engineered, and built in the USA.

The new Odyssey doesn’t buck this trend; to the contrary, it embraces it, right down to the new U.S.-sourced 10-speed transmission. But it’s also at the very vanguard (pardon the pun) of another, equally important, aspect of the zeitgeist. Let’s call it The Era Of The Imperial Child.

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By on January 4, 2017

Ohio State Highway Patrol Charger, Image: OSHP

I remember the day I committed the minor misdemeanor offense of reckless operation as if it was yesterday, although it was actually one day longer ago than the statute of limitations regarding minor misdemeanors in Ohio. I was surrounded by my accomplices — my “gang” if you will — and we were hell-bent on committing some serious traffic offenses.

The situation was this: We were all driving through Cincinnati, Ohio, at approximately 65 miles per hour. This is the speed limit for Route 71 on the north side of Cincinnati. Approximately five miles south of I-275, the speed limit on 71 drops from 65 to 45. There’s no visible logic or reasoning behind this; I-71 is still a five-or-six-lane road at this point. There are certainly times when the road is brought to a standstill by traffic, but the same is true of I-71 between Columbus and Delaware, Ohio, which has a marked limit of 70 mph.

As I passed the speed limit sign together with my gang of approximately 20 visible vehicles — most of which were doing about 70-75 mph but a few of which were going slower or faster than that — not a single driver touched his or her brakes. In the space of a few moments, we had gone from being legal or semi-legal road users to serious violators of the Ohio Revised Code. Had there been a sufficient police presence in the area, every one of us could have been sentenced to 60 days in jail and been subject to impounding of our vehicles.

This is clearly ridiculous, so it’s time to ask the question that is always relevant in situations like this: Cui bono?

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By on December 29, 2016

chief

The secret is out: my intrepid and long(ish)-suffering wife, Danger Girl, is the new owner of Matt Farah’s Corvette. This was my idea, for better or worse. She was all set on ordering a new Grand Sport for the 2017 autocross/trackday season, but I thought that it would be a better idea for her to experience all of the new-Vette-owner rituals (nose scraping, rocker panel ripping, mirror scratching, lurid 130mph backwards-facing exits into Mid-Ohio’s “China Beach”) with a used car. So now she has a “learner” Vette, albeit one with 421RWHP, Pfadt coilovers, a half-cage, and fixed Sparcos.

With just 32,200 miles at the time of sale, DG’s Corvette is still well out of warranty thanks to an in-service date from the (Bill) Clinton administration. (I guess I don’t have to put that qualifier in there any more, do I?) As my wife found out last week, however, having a car that’s under warranty isn’t always a blessing. In fact, sometimes it’s an outright curse.

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By on December 22, 2016

Jack Baruth, Miami Valley Region, 2006 VW Phaeton

A couple of weeks ago, I told the tale of an extremely profitable Soul sale. Some of you criticized me for implying that the “doc fee” was negotiable. I don’t know what kind of mindset you would have to possess in this world to think that a doc fee is not negotiable. Even if you can’t get the actual line item off your deal, you should be able to obtain a similar savings elsewhere. It’s such a scam that lately a few state courts have gotten involved in the discussion. The actual costs of “documenting” a sale don’t come close to what dealerships are trying to charge. It’s pure, raw profit.

Still, I wouldn’t expect my readers to do something I’m personally unwilling to do. So I will tell you the story of how I walked out of a dealership over a $300 doc fee. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal — but, in this case, the dealership was six hundred miles from my house, and I had no way to get home.

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By on December 15, 2016

Volvo Cars and Uber join forces to develop autonomous driving cars

It’s neither on-message for this site nor terribly interesting to my readers, which is why I rarely mention it, but I have been almost feverishly interested in matters of artificial intelligence, machine consciousness, and advanced language parsing for a very long time.

Thirty-five years ago, I tried to write a very simple sentence parser and response generator for the Atari 800 for my school science fair. The effort failed miserably, in large part because AtariBASIC didn’t really have any usable tools for text handling — and because I was nine years old and had the attention span of a fruit fly.

The night before the science fair, I admitted defeat and decided to do something else: I wrote a quick program that would give pre-programmed responses to certain questions.

The next morning, I demonstrated my program to a couple of nuns. I asked them a couple of leading questions to get them to pick the discussion topic I wanted, then I had them type the questions in. The amazingly intelligent Atari responded in full sentences! Not even the utter pathos of my quickly sketched cardboard sign behind it could keep me from getting an A+. What amuses me, in retrospect, was that the nuns weren’t really all that shocked at the idea that an 8-bit computer could parse language and give reasonable answers. Had I demoed this program to anybody who understood technology, they’d have labeled me a genius or a fraud. But to the nuns, passing the Turing test was about as tough as making an artificial volcano. Blame the movies, I guess.

The problem with every “autonomous” car that has appeared so far is simple: they are all equal to my childhood Atari program. Real autonomous operation is a hugely difficult problem. I’d like to illustrate this for you by listing five rather astounding technical feats that will be easier to accomplish than true vehicular autonomy.

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By on December 6, 2016

deal1

“Character is what you do when no one is watching.” This quote, ascribed to John Wooden, C.S. Lewis, and others, is doubly true when it comes to the oft-reviled profession of automotive sales. Any dealer can be “ethical” when they are facing an informed consumer with money, credit, the ability to hire counsel, and the self-confidence to fight for own interests. I’ve had plenty of trouble-free transactions with dealerships that had well-earned abysmal reputations for ethics. Hell, I’ve even managed to buy some new motorcycles over the years without getting raked over the coals too hard.

You can’t judge a dealer based on how he treats a middle-aged white guy with a spotless credit rating, a laptop full of information, and a thorough knowledge of the laws in his state regarding new-car sales. That would be like the Misfit having a good opinion of the grandmother in the Flannery O’Connor tale. Rather, you judge a dealer by how he behaves when there is nobody of consequence looking. Given a dark-skinned female customer with a decent co-signer and some down payment money but no genuine idea of how the process works, how much advantage will a dealer take?

The answer might shock you, as they say — but it probably won’t.

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By on December 2, 2016

2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Avalon badge, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

“Well, I bought that car last night.” Craig has this unnerving habit of simply appearing at my cubicle while I’m trying to do something productive, like texting people or reading random articles from the Last Psychiatrist archive on my phone. He’s a soft-spoken fellow, entering late middle age the same way that I am but not showing nearly as much evidence of blunt trauma, well-compensated in his engineering job but modest in appearance and disinclined to spend money.

Regarding my life and temperament, I like to follow the example of Robert Bly in quoting Cesar Vallejo: “Well, / On the day that I was born / God was sick / gravely.” I suspect that on the day that Craig was born, by contrast, God was in perfect health and settling down with the newest issue of Consumer Reports. About a month ago, Craig started seriously thinking about replacing his 150,000-mile Honda CR-V. It’s been a faithful companion for a freeway commute that takes about an hour in each direction, but even the most prosaic of Hondas eventually reaches a point where the cost of maintenance starts to become a factor. Not in money, necessarily, but in time.

Knowing that I dabble a bit in things automotive, Craig had asked what I thought about the new CR-V. This was a subject on which I was glad to speak, because I absolutely despise the “cute-utes” and will take every opportunity to rooster-block the purchase of one.

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By on November 18, 2016

2017 Honda Civic Coupe Si – Image: Honda

Imagine a world without war. More specifically, imagine a world without the horsepower war that has dominated the automotive landscape over the past fifteen years.

It’s easy if you try. The Corvette would still have 350 horsepower; mid-engined Ferraris would have about 400. The Mustang? 260 raging ponies. Most pickup trucks would have under three hundred horses, and some would have fewer than two hundred. The V12-powered Mercedes sedans would have just a bit more than half the puissance they currently possess. The Subaru STi would have 300 hp to humiliate the VW GTI’s 200 hp, while the top-spec Nissan Sentra would send 180 hp through a six-speed manual, about which a big deal would be made.

Perhaps you experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance while reading that last sentence. After all, the current Subaru STi has 305 horsepower now, facing the 210 horsepower of the GTI, and the just-announced Sentra Nismo is expected to put out 188 ponies. Compared to their turn-of-the-century ancestors, both of those cars actually have a worse power-to-weight ratio today. And while the new Civic Si is expected to put up a slightly better number than the 2006 Civic Si, it’s going to come from a 1.5-liter turbo engine that will likely be stressed to the gills, not a tuned-down variant of the Type-R’s two-liter.

So, while the wealthy car buyers among us are enjoying an era of unprecedented power in their sports cars, SUVs, and big sedans, the entry-level buyers are being asked to do more with less. Sounds familiar, right?

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