The Truth About Cars » Capsule Reviews http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 26 Nov 2014 15:49:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Capsule Reviews http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/category/news-blog/capsule-reviews/ Capsule Review: 2014 Nissan Rogue SV FWD http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/capsule-review-2014-nissan-rogue-sv-fwd/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/capsule-review-2014-nissan-rogue-sv-fwd/#comments Thu, 19 Jun 2014 11:00:27 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=846017 Behold the 2014 Nissan… wait, haven’t we covered the redesigned Rogue already? Indeed, Winston recently offered a solid writeup on the top-trim Rogue SL with all-wheel-drive, and his findings were largely positive. What if you are on a budget though? How enjoyable is Nissan’s mainstream compact crossover when the heated leather seating, Bose stereo and […]

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Behold the 2014 Nissan… wait, haven’t we covered the redesigned Rogue already?

Indeed, Winston recently offered a solid writeup on the top-trim Rogue SL with all-wheel-drive, and his findings were largely positive. What if you are on a budget though? How enjoyable is Nissan’s mainstream compact crossover when the heated leather seating, Bose stereo and touchscreen navigation system aren’t included? Sounds like a review of the more mainstream SV trim is in order.

In truth, I owed Derek this review several weeks back. Why so late? Part of the blame can be attributed to a unicorn hunt.

Allow me to explain. The Rogue (182.3” long, 106.5” wheelbase) is now one of the largest entries in the compact crossover class. That length enabled Nissan to add an optional third row to the lower two trim levels. Judging from Nissan’s specs, the Dodge Caravan and other affordable seven-seaters have little to worry about – the Rogue’s third row looks especially low and tight. I can’t say for sure though. Despite monitoring inventory for six weeks, I never got managed to sit in one.

Eventually, I settled for a two-row SV. As previously mentioned, the SV’s seats are cloth, the speakers lack Bose logos and touching the radio display just smudges it. There is still plenty of kit included for $25,350 (MSRP and destination) though – privacy glass, roof rails, Bluetooth, a rear camera, dual zone temperature control, a proximity key and power mirrors, windows, locks and driver’s seat are all included. The only feature I’d really miss out of the SL is the genuinely useful Around View Monitor. It’s hard to go back to the SV’s admittedly-competent rear camera. Some shoppers may also miss the touchscreen radio and fog lights many competitors now offer on their mid-level trims, but most of the content matches up well.

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SV buyers won’t be awash in toys, but they do get one of the more upscale exteriors in the class. I’ll leave the detailed stylistic analysis to the professionals, but I do find the front LEDs to be a bit much in that typical Nissan way. I’d still pick the redesigned Rogue over its predecessor, but yesteryear’s style lives on as the 2014 Rogue Select for those who disagree.

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I can’t imagine anyone would maintain their preference for the previous model after driving them back to back though. Neither is remotely sporty, but the redesigned Rogue improves where it counts in the class – fuel efficiency is up, noise is down and the overall drive is easygoing but not mushy.

Nissan used a carryover 2.5 liter inline four-cylinder engine across all trims, but it is better utilized by the new CVT. I don’t have any experience with Honda’s Earth Dreams CVTs, but this is the best cog-free automatic I’ve experienced so far. EPA ratings of 26 mpg city/33 highway/28 combined for FWD units don’t hurt either.

The electric power steering was also a pleasant surprise. The rack is two-finger light at parking lot speeds but firms up nicely on the open road. I might have even imagined a few tingles of feedback. My only real critique of the drive is that, like the previous generation, the new Rogue exhibits moderate body flex and loses its composure over rough pavement. Crash performance is also a bit curious – the Rogue was an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus but scored only three stars in the NHSTA frontal test (four stars overall).

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As with all crossovers these days, the real story is the interior. Nissan’s redesign is much flashier than before, but the initial impression doesn’t quite hold up. Material quality is generally improved, but many of the surfaces are still undeniably cheap. Still, the second-row slides, modern touches abound and folding the rear seats yield a very competitive 70 cubic feet of space. Nissan also touts their “Divide-N-Hide” configurable tray. It felt a bit like an answer seeking a question, but I’m sure some consumers will love it.

So far, the redesign has been a commercial success. Inventory turnover is currently high, and sales have been brisk since launch. Being that this is Nissan’s second most popular vehicle, it had better sell well though. According to Timothy Cain’s data on goodcarbadcar.net, US Rogue sales have increased every year since introduction. With 84,236 reported sales in five months, 2014 is on track to continue the trend.

Is this marketplace success deserved? As an enthusiast, I never paid much attention to the previous generation. My wife, though, had as strong a girly crush on Gen 1 as I’ve ever seen her develop for a vehicle. Gen 2 just increased the attraction, so the updated Rogue became an immediate frontrunner in our search for a new vehicle. We tested the Rogue twice but ultimately walked away. Why? The sportier drive of some competitors was a small factor (she’s a keeper!). However…

TrueDelta indicates that the 2013 updates for the Altima and Pathfinder were both relatively rough affairs by modern standards. Unfortunately, my tested Rogue also had a few teething issues that seem common in Nissan forums. The passenger door trim refused to stay aligned, the upper tray of the center console frequently did not release, the accelerator offered a surprising amount of vibration and plastic flashing along the lower portion of the center console gave me a nice scuff on one leg. None of these are major issues, but they were enough to dissuade us from becoming Nissan’s beta testers.

Quality issues aside, Nissan has a solid formula here. I didn’t buy one with my own money, but shoppers interested in space and efficiency would do well to consider the 2014 Rogue in any trim level.

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Tow Rig Capsule Review: 1999 GMT800 Silverado 2500 3/4 Ton http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/tow-rig-capsule-review-1999-gmt800-silverado-2500-34-ton/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/tow-rig-capsule-review-1999-gmt800-silverado-2500-34-ton/#comments Wed, 04 Jun 2014 13:00:41 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=832305 The last time I looked at my 1969 Chevrolet CST/10, it was a pile of disappointment. After reviving it and replacing a freeze plug, it proceeded to pop three more freeze plugs during warm up. Time was beginning to run out, my dad’s house had gone up to market and quickly sold. The truck was […]

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The last time I looked at my 1969 Chevrolet CST/10, it was a pile of disappointment. After reviving it and replacing a freeze plug, it proceeded to pop three more freeze plugs during warm up. Time was beginning to run out, my dad’s house had gone up to market and quickly sold. The truck was a long way away from driving out of Houston, and I needed to get it out of town. Time and money were a factor, I didn’t have time to spend money running a truck and trailer to Houston, just for the CST/10. Thankfully, three things lined up: A truck, a trailer, and a reason to drive to Houston. The truck is a customer’s, who loans the truck out in return for a few favors on the truck’s maintenance. The trailer came from my friend’s rally shop, which I moonlight at. And the Lone Star Region Porsche Club had invited me to partake in their refreshed autocross program at Houston Police Academy just before the closing deadline on my father’s house. Win-win, right? I packed the suitcase, tools and dog, hemorrhaged a gas pump to fill the truck, and blasted to Houston.

The biggest tool for this expedition was a venerable 1999 GMT800 Silverado 2500. A tried-and-true work truck, with no options other than power locks. Extended cab, with an eight foot bed – this is one of the longer wheelbase configurations, superceeded only by the four door “quad cab” with the eight foot bed.

The drivetrain is a gas 6.0L V8, the early all-cast iron version. Later 6.0’s and “LSx” truck engines moved to iron block and aluminum heads. The all-iron build of the early ones is a bit more stout against abuse. 300 hp and a flat 360 ft lb of torque work well at sea-level, providing excellent passing power and low end torque. To this day, it’s one of the friendliest gas engines in towing with its flat torque curve and excellent midrange power for highway use, and returns excellent fuel economy for a gas engine. I find the Ford 5.4 Modular and Dodge 5.7 Hemi from the GMT800 era were never quite as comfortable under load.

The transmission is a 4L80E, essentially a modernized overdrive version of the Turbo-400, the racetrack and workhorse hero for GM since the late 60’s. It also features a Tow/Haul mode, which changes the transmission mapping to ensure an easier day for the transmission and driver. Primarily, it holds third gear longer during climbs, and waits to lock the torque converter during hill climbs allowing the torque converter to torque multiply, allowing the 6.0L gasoline V8 to work harder under load. Four speed automatics seem archaic, but the gearing is well matched to for the 6.0.

Despite the air conditioning needing a recharge after a compressor replacement, the weather was pleasant enough for windows-down driving. In the GMT800’s, extended cabs do well with the rear vent windows open, which smoothly pull hot air out of the cab, negating the buffeting and noise with fully open windows. Cruise control was set at 70 mph, and three hours later, I arrived in my dad’s driveway.

trucks That weekend happened to be an impromptu Chevy truck convention. The charcoal short-cab/short-bed is my godfather’s, serving duty in Houston with my dad during his move. It’s a plane Jane Silverado 1500 half ton, with a 4.3L V6 and a 5-speed NV2500. The NV2500’s gearing allows the 4.3 to work well in its torque band, and even makes for a great short-distance tow rig with its compact dimensions and small turning radius. These positive attributes in the city detract from its appeal on longer drives. It simply doesn’t have the wheel base and weight for highway towing in adverse conditions. That said, it has towed 7 cars for me in the past six months.

Around town with the trailer unhitched, the Silverado 2500 rides well. The chassis soaks up irregular roads, never bucking and kicking -the rough and overly-stiff ride often associated with 3/4 and 1-tons is nowhere to be found. Think of something that rides like a firm Cadillac: It has the big-body teutonic feel with firm, well-controlled suspension movement. Brakes are excellent, with a firm and progressive bite from the hydraulically assisted power brakes — unique to the Silverado 2500 and 3500, as the regular Silverado 1500 uses traditional vacuum assist. This provides stronger brake boosting, and constant boost under heavy load where engine vacuum is low. The steering is well weighted, and with a direct but soft feel when centered. It’s never twitchy or sensitive, but does translate minor adjustments accurately. Sway bars thicker than Goldberg’s neck ensure that the Silverado 2500 feels well planted on the road.

And here’s the real trick of the GMT800 pickups: Supreme visibility. With a low belt line, and shorter overall height than most modern pickups, the GMT800s are very easy to drive in tight situations. Even when hitched to our 24 foot deck trailer, vehicle placement is a breeze. Interior ergonomics have always been great, for me. Everything is in excellent reach of the driver, and there’s ample storage. It’s basic GM plastics, but this 290,000 mile Silverado 2500 managed to stay pretty quiet inside. The gauge cluster is comprehensive and very easy to read. Real oil pressure, water temperature, voltage, and transmission temperature gauges flank the speedometer and tachometer. Dummy gauges, like “Cool” to “Hot” gauges you commonly see, are useless to me. They are often highly inaccurate, and wild swings in readings are not accurately counted by them, at times. With a comprehensive set of numbered gauges, a driver can spot a problem before it becomes detrimental. While mostly sharing the same cluster with the Silverado 1500 1/2 ton, the additional transmission temperature gauge for the Sivlerado 2500 and 3500 models is very much welcomed.

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But where these ingredients truly shine is on the highway with a load. Sunday, after the LSRPCA autocross, my dad and I packed up the CST/10 with boxes of spare parts, and loaded it onto the trailer.

The CST/10 weighs just under 5,000 pounds, and the trailer is about 2,400 pounds. Properly loaded, the chassis is largely unaffected by the weight. There’s more heave in the suspension over large movements, but the truck is rarely jarred by trailer movement. Braking stability is excellent “panic” stops proved stable, dead-straight, and with aggressive and effective ABS action. Everything is well-managed in poor weather, high winds and wet roads do not easily upset the Silverado 2500.

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The drive out of Houston was smooth. Thankfully, over the weekend my father and I recharged the A/C system. Life was much better after that, happily trucking along with the windows sealed tight. I took a 20 mile jog  to Cypress to visit my mother’s place, and stayed the night with a fresh start on Monday. This ended up being a good choice, as 15 miles outside of Cypress my trailer lost a wheel bearing – the hub cap had fallen off somewhere along the way. With no grease, the outer bearing fell apart, dumping the outer race and rollers on Highway 290, and quickly began to overheat. I caught it early after glancing at the mirrors to find plums of smoke coming out of the fender, and pulled aside.

Thankfully, I was only 2 miles past Hempstead, a podunk farming town off the main highway. And with an extra dose of luck, I managed to break down in front of a custom golf cart shop, which managed to have tons of space to drop trailer and backtrack to Hempstead. My dog, Quesa, happily wondered around the gravel parking lot, taking in every smell possible. Hempsted is still the old south, in the “yes sir, yes ma’am” tradition. It’s a place where you can leave a truck running while inside a parts store, to keep your dog cool, and not have to worry about anyone tampering with it.

 

10313830_10152176743973579_8805478268548247443_nBack on the highway, the Silverado 2500 is a smooth towing missile. With the cruise set at 70, we hummed down to San Marcos, where the truck would stay at a friend’s rally shop. A sleeping dog is a good sign of a smooth drive. Even with 20 mph crosswinds, the Silverado 2500 maintained a steady heading at all times. The overall fuel mileage for the entire trip, about 75% highway and 25% city, was 16.2 mpg, roughly $120. Not terrible.

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Though late, I rolled into San Marcos around sunset, and quickly unloaded the CST/10. Back to back, you can see the strong styling elements of the CST10 in the GMT800 Silverado.

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The price for one of these? Just a few grand, near me, anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 for a fantastic and livable budget tow rig. Excellent road manners, ease of service under the hood, and low running costs — these old GMT800 trucks are one of the best used-truck buys out there. With only a minor compromise in ride softness compared to the Silverado 1500, the additional hardware is worth the 2500 nameplate and both are valued near the same. Truly the last of the modest fullsize pickups.

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You Know You Have Been In Japan For Too Long, If … http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/11/you-know-you-have-been-in-japan-for-too-long-if-%e2%80%a6/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/11/you-know-you-have-been-in-japan-for-too-long-if-%e2%80%a6/#comments Sat, 05 Nov 2011 22:02:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=416963 I was still a little shook-up from the treatment administered by Matsuda-san, and it must have shown. “Why don’t you get some fresh air?” was the polite Japanese suggestion. An Infiniti G37 Convertible was the appropriate way to enhance the flow of seaside breeze around my still pale nose. I sat down. Buckled up. Pushed […]

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I was still a little shook-up from the treatment administered by Matsuda-san, and it must have shown. “Why don’t you get some fresh air?” was the polite Japanese suggestion.

An Infiniti G37 Convertible was the appropriate way to enhance the flow of seaside breeze around my still pale nose. I sat down. Buckled up. Pushed start. Put the 7 speed automatic into drive. Put my hands on the steering wheel. However …

… there was no steering wheel. The spot where they have a steering wheel in countries such as Japan, the UK,  Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the U.S. Virgin Islands gave me a nicely appointed, but nonetheless blank stare. I sat in the right place.

But I was slipped an export model, with the steering on the left. Sheepishly, I traded places. Everybody pretended not to have seen.

Infiniti G37, export spec. Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Infiniti G37, export spec. Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Infiniti G37, export spec. Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Infiniti G37, export spec. Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

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CPO To Go: 2011 Scion tC http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/11/cpo-to-go-2011-scion-tc/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/11/cpo-to-go-2011-scion-tc/#comments Thu, 03 Nov 2011 15:27:18 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=416649 Two door cars used to be everywhere. From loaded up Cutlasses and Accords. To entry level Escorts, Neons and Civics. Nearly every popular car of 20 years ago offered a hatchback or coupe variant for those seeking a touch of sport in their daily driver. Then something happened. America gradually got older… and bigger. Four […]

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Two door cars used to be everywhere. From loaded up Cutlasses and Accords. To entry level Escorts, Neons and Civics. Nearly every popular car of 20 years ago offered a hatchback or coupe variant for those seeking a touch of sport in their daily driver.

Then something happened. America gradually got older… and bigger. Four door cars went from the plain-jane three square look of the 1980’s, to designs that evoked the priciest of exotics. Advances in steel fabrication and body stamping were just the beginning of what soon became a new era where four door cars completely dominated their two door sisters.

“Why deal with the inconvenience of a two door?” said a buying public knee-deep in aging baby boomers. Why indeed when you could have everything from a Camry to an SUV if you wanted the pretense of a sporty and powerful ride. Hatchbacks soon gave way to oversized coupes, which gave way to the reality that so-called ‘sporty’ designs were now available in every segment of the car market.

To survive for another generation, a two door compact like the Scion tC has to offer a lot more than just a ‘sporty’ driving experience.

Everyone on first glance assumes that the new Scion tC is a coupe. The side profile has the prototypical coupe look with a short trunk in the rear combined with an upright roof that seemingly sacrifices sport for space.
But the ‘coupe’ compromise doesn’t quite happen in the Scion tC. You open the hatch and the rear glass lifts up to reveal an opening that can swallow up… well… a bit more space than a coupe if the seats are folded down. It may not be an old Saab hatchback’s worth of space. But it will work for 90+% of buyers of this vehicle. Consider this an achievement in an age where consumers still complain if a car has only two cupholders.
The unusual styling is pretty much the only compromise I can note in this car. Otherwise the Scion tC serves in today’s market as the spiritual successor to the Toyota Celica. If you’re willing to pay about two grand more than a mid-level Corolla, you get a flashy, very well priced, reliable, good fuel economy car that is surprisingly easy to live with.
The interior is an embodiment of this ‘easy to live with’ theme. Open the door. Slide (or fall) into the driver’s seat… and it takes only a minute or two to figure out where everything is.Three simple knobs for the a/c, heat and defrost controls. A Lexus inspired steering wheel that is safely removed from the current fad of putting 17 different functions on it. Throw in a premium sound system with 8 speakers and 300 watts (along with Bluetooth, Ipod compatibility, and USB port); a sunroof, a well placed skyroof that helps minimize the claustrophobic feeling of most rear seat passengers, and you’re sitting pretty. Especially since the sticker comes in at only $19,275.

Everything you will usually touch in the Scion tC feels like it should. However it’s also simple to see where Toyota performed their ‘cost containment’. The door panel plastics. The underside of the dashboard. The carpet in the hatch. Everything you don’t touch is simply ‘functional’, which quickly translates into dour and stark if you’re not the type who is into black interiors with minimal ornamentation.Want a car that is bright and cheery? Go get a car driven by hamsters.

The tC is a stunningly no nonsense vehicle in an era where every other competitor has a gimmick.

On the road I felt everything… but it wasn’t a bad feeling. I would consider it a taut ride. On rough surfaces the tC will transmit the ‘thunks’ into your ears without any other bodily discomfort.

Scion owner... or marketeer? (Courtesy Eight08Customs)

Keep in mind that this new Scion tC now has the youngest average age of ownership out of any vehicle today (26 years old, really). So if you no longer like to feel or hear the road in your daily commute, there are countless softer alternatives out there.

On the road you also get the feeling that this vehicle is made out of one thick piece of steel. The fit and finish is exceptional. To the point where I would have not been surprised if Toyota had simply taken a Lexus and just simply cheapened the interior a bit. Make that quite a bit.

The tC is not a luxury coupe by any stretch. But the seats and road isolation are good enough on the highway that I still felt great after 7 hours of driving. Not a lot of sub-$20,000 cars with a ‘sporty’ ride can offer that real world comfort.

On the highway, I kept the speed right at 80 mph and managed to get 31 mpg. That was a surprising number along with the 28 mpg I got around town.Unless you put the pedal down, the 6-speed automatic will be squarely pegged at maximizing fuel economy. It can be fast if you want it to. But 95+% of the time you will be driving a frugal 2.5 Liter 180 horsepower engine that appreciates the low end of the power band.

Those who want to redline it all the time should definitely go with the manual. Like most modern automatics with manual overrides, the one in the Scion has a disconcerting delay that kills most of the real world fun. Shift. Wait. Click. It gets pretty old. But I can’t fault the tC for this since nearly every other model in the marketplace short of a VW shifts the same way.

What was more impressive was that the 2.5L 180 horsepower engine constantly turned at about 2400 rpm while going 80 through some fierce grades . Not once through the Smoky Mountains did the tC have to downshift from 6th gear. Not even in those rare times when I had to drive the double nickel while going uphill due to traffic. A lot of owners will appreciate the fact this car doesn’t drone on in high rpms when faced with these situations.

What’s not to like? A few things. In a world where even the cheapest vehicles have raised seating positions, the tC is low to the road. Those longing for the panoramic views offered in sporty coupes of a generation ago will be disappointed. The thick A-pillars give a bit of a distance to the road as you go. Road warriors usually like this distance. Many enthusiasts do not. You will have to judge this for yourself.

The tC is also not an overwhelming speedster on the road. A long list of publications clock the 0 to 60 at around 8.5 seconds with the 6-speed automatic. In real world measurements, the tC has all the power you need for the real world… but not for the race. The acceleration is always there. But it’s not the type that pushes you way back in the seat and gives you some serious g’s. Aspiring ricers and speed demons should look elsewhere.

Finally,  I have a big bone to pickwith the Southeast Distributor of Toyotas who assess ridiculous price premiums on the tC and other models. Back in 1994 I had to buy a new Toyota Camry in New Jersey instead of Atlanta. Why? Because if you wanted ABS and a sunroof the distributor added about $1500 in bogus options.

From ‘window etching’ of the VIN number (because window thieves were SO common back in the day). To their three cent spray version of Scotchguard. I even recall a phony wood package that had worse long-term wear issues than anything else ever put on Toyota.I ended up flying to New Jersey and spending $200 to save $1500. Fast forward 17 years later and the Toyota distributor adds a ‘Navigation’ upgrade that didn’t work at all on more than one occasion. Total cost added to the MSRP? $1499. You also get assessed $109 for floormats in a new car… but don’t worry! The Scion tC now comes with a tightwad exuding level of gas in the tank according to the window sticker. 6 whole gallons for no charge!

All kidding aside, if you happen to live in the southeast I would keep a watchful eye on the window sticker and negotiate out of the region if need be. For anyone else who happens to be considering a VW Beetle, Kia Forte, base Mini Cooper, or any number of four door competitors that offer a sporty oriented vibe, you should add the Scion tC to your list. Just make sure you follow the advice of Tony Bennett. The tC is only a good choice for those ‘among the very young at heart’.

I received seven free meals, three free hotel rooms, several tankfuls of  gas, and insurance  for this review. All except one tank of gas and insurance were provided exclusively by Ed Niedermeyer during our journey through Chattanooga and Nashville. No opossums were cooked in the engine bay during the course our long drive through Appalachia… but we did consider it.

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Capsule Review: 2012 Buick Regal GS http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/capsule-review-2012-buick-regal-gs/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/capsule-review-2012-buick-regal-gs/#comments Wed, 19 Oct 2011 23:46:00 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=415278 When Buick announced that it would not be rebadging the Opel Insignia OPC as the Buick Regal GS, and that instead of the OPC’s all wheel drive and turbocharged V6 we’d be getting a front-drive turbo four performance model, I was a bit skeptical. On paper, the proposed GS just didn’t seem different enough from […]

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When Buick announced that it would not be rebadging the Opel Insignia OPC as the Buick Regal GS, and that instead of the OPC’s all wheel drive and turbocharged V6 we’d be getting a front-drive turbo four performance model, I was a bit skeptical. On paper, the proposed GS just didn’t seem different enough from the turbo model (which I liked well enough as-is) to elicit much initial enthusiasm. But this is why we drive cars instead of just comparing spec sheets: having spent some time alone with the GS, I’m happy to report that my skepticism was entirely unnecessary.

The first three minutes or so of the forty-odd minutes I spent hammering the GS around the hills of the Northern Willamette Valley, I spent familiarizing myself with the GS’s whistling turbo. After some light lag, the turbo starts twisting out a smooth river of torque that seems to swell graciously (rather than ferociously) under the driver’s right foot. Switching from a naturally-aspirated six-cylinder to the GS, there’s a brief adjustment in driving style, requiring subtle turbo management as the boost build. But by the time the first curves in the road appear, the turbo’s learning curve is over and I’ve figured out how to keep 295 ft-lbs at the ready.

Though the ride feels utterly planted and the few short bends are easily dispatched, the sight of the first sharp corner has me rushing for the brakes. This is, after all, a front-drive Buick, and there are no shoulders or guardrails between it and a thrilling adventure in potentially fatal understeer. The GS shrugs off the speed, turns in with surprising sharpness, and before I know it the boost is building again under my foot and we’re away. On the next corner I brake considerably less, and it pitches intuitively into the turn, and then clings furiously to the asphalt as I feed in the throttle. With each successive corner I push a little bit deeper, flick it a little more aggressively in the tighter turns, get on the throttle in the faster turns. In fact, I spent the rest of the drive trying desperately to find out what happens to the GS when it’s pushed to the point where a chassis shows its true colors… without success.

There are two basic schools of performance car preference: first is a car with low but exploitable limits, which delights with its playful incompetence, the second is a car that is so utterly composed that it delights with its sheer poise. My beloved Z3M fits in the first category, at its best when you’re pushing or catching it around corners. The Regal GS is squarely in the latter category, offering the kind of calmly assuring performance that allows extremely rapid on-road pace at while building the driver’s confidence at every step. Between the turbo’s power delivery, GM’s HiPer strut suspension, the stiffer “GS Mode” and some good summer rubber, the GS is able to take improbably high cornering speeds (GM claims .9g on the skidpad) with zero drama… you could tell this car you slept with its sister in the middle of a sharp curve, and it would simply shrug its shoulders and tug you to the next corner. But more than grip, the GS puts its power down so smoothly under so many circumstances, AWD would be an unwelcome addition.

More power and AWD or rear-drive elicit something of a Pavlovian response in auto enthusiasts, but the GS proves that a well set-up front-driver with a good manual transmission can be as much fun as anything else. It’s not a madhouse, eye-rolling, tongue-lolling kind of fun, like you get from, say, a CTS-V. It’s a quietly confident, real-world, hustle-you-home kind of fun that tugs incessantly at the corners of your mouth. The Buick yin to the Cadillac yang, if you will… at the same $35k-ish price point as the nowhere-near-as-fun-to-drive base CTS sedan. With apologies to John Lennon,  A middle-class hero is something to be… 

Buick made the vehicle for this review available at a launch event

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Capsule Review: 1984 BMW 733i (5-Speed) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/capsule-review-1984-bmw-733i-5-speed/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/capsule-review-1984-bmw-733i-5-speed/#comments Sat, 15 Oct 2011 19:38:51 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=414869 In the highly unlikely event that my father precedes me into the grave, I will have to come up with another way to describe him besides “the late Kevin Baruth”. The old man’s never been late for something in his life. Nor has he even been a terribly, shall we say, easy-going fellow. One of […]

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In the highly unlikely event that my father precedes me into the grave, I will have to come up with another way to describe him besides “the late Kevin Baruth”. The old man’s never been late for something in his life. Nor has he even been a terribly, shall we say, easy-going fellow. One of the medals he received in Vietnam was, if I recall correctly, for single-handedly halting the retreat of a disorganized Marine unit after the death of said unit’s commander and forcing them to turn around and advance towards the enemy. I have no trouble imagining how this might have happened; I’d rather shoot it out with a company of NVA regulars than contradict my father.

I mention all of the above for a reason. When I tell my friends that I learned how to drive in a black 1984 BMW 733i, they say, “That’s pretty cool.” When I explain further that it was the relatively rare manual-transmission variant, they say, “That’s even cooler.” It’s difficult to make them understand that it’s tough to learn how to drive in a stick-shift car, tougher to do it in a $36,000 ($77K in today’s money) BMW, and worse yet to do it with someone sitting next to you who might, just possibly, rip your head off at any moment.

How shall we describe the “E23″ 733i? One way to describe it would be like so: in terms of size, weight, power, and transmission choice, it’s about the same as a 2011 Honda Accord EX four-cylinder. Here’s another: like every full-sized BMW since from the “New Six” to the modern 750Li, it was an alternative but inferior choice to the S-Class Mercedes, at a considerably reduced price: $36,000 compared to the $51,200 MSRP of the 1984 500SEL. That was back in the days when you paid more, and received more, for the three-pointed star. W126 Benzos are perfectly capable of traveling a million miles or more in their service lives. By contrast, most E23 Bimmers were sag-assed buy-here-pay-here fodder by the time they clocked 75k. They were disposable garbage and that’s one of the few traditions BMW continues to respect with the 7 Series until this very day.

Not that it wasn’t a joy to drive, particularly once I figured out how to operate a clutch and roll it up to highway speeds. Back in 1987, the year I turned sixteen, the average car on the street was a four-cylinder Chevrolet Celebrity, Plymouth Reliant, or Nissan Stanza. Compared to them, the 181-horsepower BMW was a rocketship with a burnished leather interior and fascinating red-lit gauges. The shifter was long-throw but it was effortless to negotiate, the brakes were powerful without being grabby, and the engine simply radiated competence and character. Derek Kriendler’s notes about the acceleration of affluence apply here as well; in 1987 a “Siebener” BMW was still a relatively rare and prestigious sight. As a teenager I felt like Someone driving it.

How did it handle? In a pair of words, not well. The aforementioned 2011 Accord EX would have no trouble showing it a clean rear bumper in a back-road battle. Not to worry, because racetrack prowess was besides the point. The purpose of the car was to rocket along the ‘bahn at an easy 130mph, sweeping the Golfs and Astras out of your path with a set of staggered-size quad halogen-beam headlamps. Sadly, we didn’t get those here due to US regulations and had to make do instead with the normal DOT-legal small round quads. One feature that BMW would have been smart to leave in Europe: the ridiculous Michelin TRX metric wheels and tires. Many a BMW owner, including my father, discovered to their sorrow that tires for the 390mm BMW TRX wheels were difficult to find and insanely expensive when you could find them.

The US-spec E23s also suffered from big, ungainly impact bumpers that completely trivialized the “shark nose” profile shared with its far more iconic 633i sibling. Nor were we permitted to have the 745i, which wasn’t a 4.5L at all but simply a turbo 3.2 six. Perhaps the best E23 was the South African exclusive “M7″ normally-aspirated 745i which replaced the turbo twelve-valver with the fabulous 24-valve six also found in the M6 and M5.

This was the era when BMW had driver-angled center stacks, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I was very impressed by this as a child. Back then, most cars still had wide, flat dashboards. Hell, the Porsche 911 didn’t even have a full console back then, but the BMW 733i certainly did. It was cool, and it seemed special at the time. BMW might do well to re-differentiate itself from the competition by reintroducing the angled center stack.

BMW’s relentless efforts to revise history have painted the mid-Eighties as a seamless part of the company’s inexorable rise to prominence, but at the time the Munich men seemed a little adrift. The 3-Series was at its all-time low point (the eight-valve 318i), the Five was stuck with the 127-horsepower “eta” low-rev six, and the Seven was the car you see above, a distant also-ran to the almighty W126. The products weren’t compelling, the marketing was ridiculously faux-upscale, and the Acura Legend was about to debut and make the mid-size Germans seem a bit over-priced and under-specified. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion at all that BMW would succeed, really.

Faced with this dismal situation, the company started working on quick-fixes. The 325e showed that the 528e’s lackluster six could shine in a smaller car, while the 533i and succeeding 535i pulled the same trick on a bigger, faster scale. A slightly de-powered 256-horsepower variant of the M1 six-cylinder found a home in the M5 and M6, and BMW won the race to put a twelve-cylinder in a German luxury car with the E32 750il. It was all uphill from there.

If the 733i failed to make a terribly lasting impression on the market, it certainly made one on my father. He drove a succession of black BMWs over the years to come, interrupted by the occasional Jaguar or Infiniti, before returning to BMW for his current 528i. I was annoyed that he didn’t buy a 550i or at least a 535i, but he points out that it has more features than the old 733i, costs less in current money, and is a little bit faster. “Fast enough to get me to the airport on time” he notes. Not that I would expect him to ever arrive late.

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Capsule Review: 1968 Fiat 500 (595) Esse-Esse Abarth http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/capsule-review-1968-fiat-500-595-esse-esse-abarth/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/capsule-review-1968-fiat-500-595-esse-esse-abarth/#comments Thu, 11 Aug 2011 19:12:14 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=406693 I haven’t been to Italy, in 21 years. My cousins and I are having dinner together for the first time in 21 years. If I didn’t already know it, I’d have learned it now: males with Italian blood are obsessed with cars. My cousin Nicola even works for FIAT, in the seaside town of Termoli. […]

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I haven’t been to Italy, in 21 years. My cousins and I are having dinner together for the first time in 21 years. If I didn’t already know it, I’d have learned it now: males with Italian blood are obsessed with cars. My cousin Nicola even works for FIAT, in the seaside town of Termoli.

“Are there Fiats at Chrysler stores in Canada now?” he asks.

“Just the 500,” I inform.

“That’s not the real 500,” says Angelo, his younger brother. Two hours later, we’re in my Nonna’s garage. He pulls the tarp off a stunning, perfectly restored 1968 Fiat 595 SS Abarth. “Quest’è la vera Cinquecento!” he informs me.

The trip from Montreal to Casacalenda, off the Adriatic coast, took 12 hours. My BlackBerry says 11 AM, my body says 5 AM. I haven’t slept in almost 36 hours. I am covered in airport guck. Now, somewhere in the Italian countryside, I’m going to drive a car without power steering, and 4 drums for brakes.

My cousin and I are shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow in the Esse-Esse. The cockpit is dominated by two things: a speedometer and an ashtray. These form perhaps the most succinct depiction that I’ve ever seen of the stereotypical Italian male persona. “Per capire l’Italia, devi guidare la macchina del popolo,” Angelo says. (“To understand Italy, you must drive the people’s car.”)

The roof encroaches upon my head; I have to adopt a Quasimodo-like hunch to get my eyes below the top line of the windshield and actually see out of the car. Obviously, Italians were shorter in the 60s.

I fire it up. It sounds like a cross between a Harley and an AMG V8.

“Il motore fa quanti cavalli?” I ask.

“27.”

I stall it twice just getting it out of the garage. The throws on the stick are epically long, like a day without bread. The friction point feels like it occurs randomly along the pedal’s journey, at a different point each time. My cousin says this transmission is going to feel different than what I’m used to. No shit.

At first, I’m frustrated. The cobblestone streets give the Fiat a serious case of epileptic tribulations. The town is an interconnected network of tiny, maze-like streets across rolling hills. Every intersection is a new challenge – combining octogenarian pedestrians, elevation changes, and ground effects in varying degrees. Every time we stop, facing uphill, I’m nervous about stalling. I can’t even use the parking brake to cheat, because, well, it’s a 43-year-old car and the parking brake hasn’t worked since Berlusconi’s first term in office.

Eventually, I manage to assemble a decent circuit around the village’s confusing streets. As the laps pile on, and I’m getting used to the car, I feel its personality emerge. I start to understand why Angelo wanted me to drive it.

First, the steering. The wheel is small; rotation requires a more than casual effort. It’s incredibly direct, lively without being twitchy. The front wheels react instantaneously, and bite immediately. It’s actually becoming fun to guide the car through the narrow streets of the old world.

I never fully understood the transmission, but I learned to work with it. Angelo forbade power shifts. He even forbade quick shifts. Everything had to be smooth, gentle, the way a cappuccino goes down on a sunny afternoon. Every time I put the hammer down, the Cinquecento responded enthusiastically, propelling me through the streets and up hills without trouble. Coupled with the sound it made, it was perfect driving nirvana.

Eventually, we left town and hit the mountain roads. We drove the sinewy mountain roads between Larino and Casacalenda. By drive, I don’t mean it in the newer American sense: casually direct a power-assisted-steering, with one hand while the buttery chassis isolates the driver from road’s more interesting features. Here, we drove. We drove with two hands on the wheel, looking not 50 feet beyond us, but 500, to know what we’d have to do. The shifts and revs had to be matched or the car’s performance would suffer. Braking distances had to be respected – there were no discs to save us, let alone ABS. Every curve, every hairpin, was full of excitement and required utmost concentration to execute.

Angelo and I were having the time of our lives. Driving the Fiat here was a man’s game. If you timed everything correctly, the 500’s engine would reward you with a thunderous roar. Driving lines had to consider elevation changes and deterioration. The 12-km drive left me with a profound respect for those who journeyed across this mountainous country in a Cinquecento.

As we pulled in to the garage, I began to reflect on how my experience had improved my understanding of Italy, as Angelo had suggested it would. My mind kept drifting to the VW Beetle, another car that was also una macchina del popolo. The Bug’s status as an automotive icon is beyond dispute; the Cinquecento itself was reverse engineered from the Bug.

However, the Italians understood what was missing from the Beetle. It was all left-brained, a perfectly built-car for a defined purpose. This would never suit the country of Da Vinci, the mathematician who painted the Mona Lisa. The car for il popolo d’Italia had to be more – it had to satisfy the left-brain and inspire the right. Enter la Cinquecento.

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Capsule Review: 1990 Plymouth Colt http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/capsule-review-1990-plymouth-colt/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/capsule-review-1990-plymouth-colt/#comments Thu, 04 Aug 2011 13:35:44 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=405769 “TWO HUNDRED BUCKS? Are you serious? That doesn’t sound like enough money.” No, dear readers, I wouldn’t last ten minutes in the “World Series Of Poker”. I can’t bluff and I usually speak my mind before using that mind to think about the consequences of what I’m saying. In this case, however, it didn’t matter. […]

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“TWO HUNDRED BUCKS? Are you serious? That doesn’t sound like enough money.”

No, dear readers, I wouldn’t last ten minutes in the “World Series Of Poker”. I can’t bluff and I usually speak my mind before using that mind to think about the consequences of what I’m saying. In this case, however, it didn’t matter. The guy across the table from me at dinner was bound and determined to sell me his nine-year-old, good-condition, no-options-but-new-tires-all-’round, Plymouth Colt four-speed for the very reasonable price of two Benjamins.

How could I say no?

The year was 1999 and I was, as usual, working two jobs. By day I was a contractor for a certain big blue computer company at a local hospital, and by night I was one-half of a web-hosting cooperative operating a single dual-Pentium-II box out of another web-hosting company’s closet. My partner in the latter enterprise, a brilliant half-Filipino named Greg, was also my office mate in the former. We’d met on my first day at the hospital and had almost immediately decided to go into the web hosting business.

What a sweet gig that was. Our single computer had cost $950 to build, and we paid $150 a month for its place in the closet, but it was easily capable of hosting a hundred websites. Our clients each forked over between twenty and two hundred bucks a month to share their dreams, opinions, and products with the world. For a pair of twenty-somethings with very few actual expenses, it was a dream come true and the only problem was figuring out where to spend all the money.

Not that Greg was particularly concerned about the proverbial dolla dolla bill, ya’ll. We’d never heard of Asperger’s Syndrome, but looking back it’s plain to me now that he had a four-alarm case of it. He couldn’t remember his keys, his wallet, or his cell phone. He didn’t keep regular hours, return calls, or clean his room. He’d paid cash for a nearly-new Mitsubishi Eclipse some time previously but had never changed the oil or renewed the plates. He would often stay awake for days at a time, obsessing over a bit of Perl code or a potential for a “buffer overflow”, and then sleep for twenty-four-hours straight. Once, I helped him clean out his desk at work and we found three uncashed paychecks totaling just over six thousand dollars. You get the idea. He was in the world, as the Apostle Paul would say, but not of it.

Although Greg drove me nuts sometimes, I liked him — and I needed him. Running a webserver in 1999 meant writing a lot of custom configurations and code, and I couldn’t do it alone. My wife and I started looking after him a bit. Eventually, we all moved into a hip, tall-ceiling condo. I used the webhosting money to furnish it with Herman Miller furniture, Aeron work chairs, and 21″ color monitors in our “office”. Greg chose to sleep on a bare mattress in a room filled to waist level with books, unfolded clothes, and pizza boxes.

Where were we? Oh, yes: the Colt. Big Blue paid for our dinner pretty much every night of the week, and those dinners swelled with the ranks of the contractors, the subcontractors, and the hangers-on. At one of those dinners, a sub-sub-contractor mentioned that the death of his father had left him in possession of an 85,000-mile 1990 Plymouth Colt. Base car, black bumpers, four-speed manual, no A/C. He wanted it gone. Two hundred bucks was the price. I had it in my pocket, so the next day the title, and the car, were in my hands.

From the moment I put the Colt in gear, I loved it. The 1990 Colt was actually a Mitsubishi Mirage/Lancer, of course, which meant that it was an imperfect copy of a Honda Civic. With 81 horsepower to push 2200 pounds, it was sprightly enough, and the grey-vinyl interior was dismal but durable. Visibility was absolutely superb, the cowl was low, and the very small complement of controls was easy to operate.

When I was a kid, the phrase “UJM” — Universal Japanese Motorcycle — was popular. A UJM was any four-cylinder, water-cooled, standard-style Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, or Yamaha. Think Honda CB550 as an example. They were all well-made, durable, a bit bland, and difficult to identify at a distance.

I think of the Colt, Civic, Corolla, and Sentra of the early Nineties as Universal Japanese Cars. They were all under 2500 pounds. They could be had with vinyl floors and, usually, four-speed transmissions. Nothing went wrong with them, but there wasn’t any gingerbread to be had either. Only rust could take them out of circulation, really. They were good cars. For a while, I thought the Hyundai Elantra might aspire to modern “UKC” status, but it turns out that the Koreans would rather put heated rear seats in the things than quarter-million-mile engines.

So. The Colt. Forget two hundred bucks. This car would have been a screaming deal at two thousand. Or four thousand. It returned an easy thirty-five miles per gallon in all circumstances despite buzzing like a Sikorsky on the freeway. Nothing went wrong with it.

If only the same could be said for Greg’s Eclipse, which finally responded to three years of operation on the same four quarts of oil by swallowing its crankshaft. Greg left it by the side of the road, walked home, then forgot where he’d left the car. Although he had tens of thousands of dollars in the bank, he couldn’t exactly go get another whip; in addition to never renewing the tags on the Eclipse, he’d forgotten to renew his driver’s license or purchase any insurance. The State of Ohio’s hammer was going to come down on him hard. In the meantime, he needed a car. I gave him the Colt and crossed my fingers.

Months passed. My wife and I finally bought a house and moved out of the condo, which I then filled with five expatriate Bolivians. That’s another story. One day, I was working on our server and I received a “talk” request from Greg. “Talk” was an old chat protocol for two people logged onto the same UNIX system.

Greg: hey i have a question

Jack: ok

Greg: do you have the keys for the colt

Jack: There was only one set and you have them

Greg: I lost the ones I have

Jack: Have you looked everywhere?

Greg: yes it’s been a while

Jack: How long is a while?

Greg: I guess 20 days maybe 25

Jack: how the fuck have you been GETTING PLACES?

Greg: mostly I’ve been walking

I called a locksmith, who popped the door and made a new set of keys. Unfortunately, the Colt didn’t start with those keys. We swapped the battery and it cranked but wouldn’t turn over. I was up to three jobs, having added a small vendor-consulting operation to my list of occupations, and didn’t have time to mess with it. There was a 230,000-mile Plymouth Voyager sitting in my driveway, something I’d acquired along with a few other assets when forming the new business from the ashes of someone else’s previous venture. I took Greg back to my house, put him behind the wheel of the Voyager, and considered myself lucky to have the Colt back. A grand of repair, tops, and I’d be four-speeding my merry way along again.

Unfortunately for me, however, my wife did not share in that happy vision. She much preferred riding around in the brand-new BMW 330i Sport I’d picked up a few months before. “Make it go away,” she said. Four days later, I was standing next to the Colt, talking to two rather rough-looking fellows.

“It don’t run,” one said to me.

“Don’t look like it’s got no oil,” the other said. There was a moment of silence.

“Two hundred bucks,” quoth the first.

“THANK GOD!” I replied.

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Capsule Review: 1980 Mercedes 450 SLC 5.0 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/04/capsule-review-1980-mercedes-450-slc-5-0/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/04/capsule-review-1980-mercedes-450-slc-5-0/#comments Tue, 19 Apr 2011 18:49:51 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=391947 The Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC 5.0 isn’t a dream car, because it’s obscurity and touring car blueprint is a relative buzzkill. But this Bauhaus-worthy super coupe is a homologated racer much like it’s 300 SL forefather. I’ll skip the basics to focus on unit #1576: a grey market import from a USAF officer stationed in Germany. […]

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The Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC 5.0 isn’t a dream car, because it’s obscurity and touring car blueprint is a relative buzzkill. But this Bauhaus-worthy super coupe is a homologated racer much like it’s 300 SL forefather. I’ll skip the basics to focus on unit #1576: a grey market import from a USAF officer stationed in Germany. The current owner, Leif Skare, let me drive this meticulously kept, nearly stock (period correct 15” wheels and AMG front spoiler aside) SLC 5.0 before it heads back to Europe. Perhaps the SLC 5.0 is a dream car, when viewed in the right light. In the right place.

I absorbed the scene, like a moment stolen from another decade, a different generation…

The SLC takes flight against the Menil Museum, a landmark of Houston’s thriving art scene. The prodigious C-pillar louvers match the Menil’s roof, providing visual distraction from the bulk of a freakishly long body. So long that the A-pillar rests disturbingly close to the chassis’ centerline. Which is stunning, even if the trim dimensions, pillarless hardtop, non-Federalized bumpers/headlights and charcoal gray ribbed lower trim fly under the radar. Add the 5.0 badging and durable rubber decklid spoiler and the package is right, but few onlookers fall for this coupe’s siren song.

TTAC’s Yankee readership may never see an SLC 5.0, but they already have: Ford ripped off the SLC’s rooftop louvers for their entry-level sports coupe. Which puts this car in context: an average guy in a Mustang 5.0 coupe, meeting someone far less attainable in an SLC 5.0.

It was 1980. I was a wanna-be artist exiting my Mustang, walking to the Menil. I saw her once again, a hot-to-trot socialite, with a vehicle only seen in magazines: how did she get an SLC 5.0 in America? That made her more interesting than other women in this crowd. But I sat alone, on one of the few benches in the museum, admiring the art through a crowd of nameless, faceless people. Then she walks up, looked me square in the eyes and coarsely said, “Scoot over.”

I did. Unique car aside, she’s far from an average socialite. I had to strike a conversation, albeit labored and awkward. Mercifully, she let the discussion veer to her car. Shockingly, she took me for a spin.

All the “car guy” chatter expected at this point was repackaged in a self-aware, stunningly beautiful creature: she knew the SLC 5.0’s weight reduction happens via aluminum hood, doors and engine. More surprising, she claims the lighter portals shut with a solidity found in a normal S-class, Cadillac or Jaguar. Judging from the haute couture draped over her body, she’d know better than I.

We hit the freeway discussing travel, as I admired the useless roof-mounted grab handles. As I enjoyed the German leather’s distinct fragrance and rich carpeting (even on the parcel shelf), she spoke of a restaurant in LA’s Little Tokyo district: sampling a new creation called the California Roll. Avocados in rice are a delicacy I can overlook, but the SLC 5.0’s abundant wood trim and “silver-lining” chrome accents have mass appeal. Yet her high-brow talk isn’t bragging, it’s enrichment: the same way the SLC 5.0’s interior feels more purposeful, less frivolous than the same bits in a fashionista’s SL roadster.

We spoke of music, Donna Summer and Saturday Night Fever 8-tracks resting in my 5.0 Mustang. Her Becker “Monza” compact-cassette deck retorted with esoteric Giorgio Moroder and Manu Dibango. So she mystified me, much like the SLC’s exotic seat heaters paired with power front and crank rear windows. Then we stopped. She nonchalantly told me to switch places.

I slipped behind the oversize tiller. The steering has more heft than anything I’ve driven (this is 1980!) with power steering, with more cornering poise and flexibility: swing axles and stabilizer bars keeping the rear planted and easy to rotate with a heavy right foot. While the 3-speed automatic was no sweetheart, the 5.0 had tremendous torque, a flat powerband and revved hard past 5000 rpm: unheard of in the Age of Disco. This ain’t an E-type Jag, so the SLC 5.0 is a barge in the Yank Tank tradition. I left the driver’s seat pining for an “SLC” version of my 5.0 Mustang. That arrived in 1988 via Lincoln’s Mark VII “LSC” and its 225hp 5.0-liter V8: derivative name aside, the parallels are still disturbing. Take my word for it…or not.

But please believe that dreams never last: my time with the lady and her SLC 5.0 ended as quickly as it began. I didn’t see a wedding ring, yet I’d never have her. She’s a self-made, fiercely independent bombshell that fights off men’s advances with a proverbial stick. I’ll never take a shot at her like that, even if she wanted more from our encounter. We parted in the parking lot; I followed her in my be-louvered 5.0 Mustang. No matter how I tried, her SLC 5.0 was one step ahead: I lacked the grip, thrust and brakes to match her pace. Thank goodness for dreaming of pretty women in pretty Mercedes coupes…

Big thanks to Lief Skare for the test drive, Dan Wallach for the photos and you-know-who-you-are for your time

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Capsule Review: The Spirit Of Goodyear http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/03/capsule-review-the-spirit-of-goodyear/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/03/capsule-review-the-spirit-of-goodyear/#comments Fri, 04 Mar 2011 18:06:25 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=386258 Raise your hand if you’ve actually flown a Goodyear blimp for a solid forty-five minutes and actually made it go where you were supposed to take it. I thought so. I’m the only guy with his hand up. Sucks to be you, you non-blimp-flyin’-mothertrucker. To keep this from being Blimplopnik or whatever they’re calling Mr. […]

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Raise your hand if you’ve actually flown a Goodyear blimp for a solid forty-five minutes and actually made it go where you were supposed to take it.

I thought so. I’m the only guy with his hand up. Sucks to be you, you non-blimp-flyin’-mothertrucker.

To keep this from being Blimplopnik or whatever they’re calling Mr. Wert’s Wild Ride nowadays, I’m going to bring you content never seen before: blimp review emulation. Follow along as I review the Goodyear blimp, one paragraph at a time, in the style of each of our most famous contributors. This will be no worse than the Dune continuation books, I promise.

As Robert Farago:

The Spirit Of Goodyear is so grossly oversized, so blimp-like, that one is actually shocked by the modest yet antiquated accomodations available in the sheet-steel gondola. From the MG TD-style sliding curtain windows to the ridiculous faux-authenticity of the crooked rivet lines supposedly holding the thing together, it’s a stark statement of America’s inability to compete in the cut-throat airship business. Let’s not even begin to discuss the pathetic response from the twin overhead-valve engines or the roar which pervades the cabin like the death rattles of a terminally slain Cerberus. I despite this blimp, as I have despised every other blimp I’ve ever flown. Only the desperately credit-challenged would ever consider stepping into a Goodyear blimp when the Fuji blimps are available. I hate it. Look for it to find a permanent home in blimp rental fleets near you.

As Michael Karesh:

At my site, TrueDelta, we have yet to obtain the 2,300 responses from blimp owners which would be required to provide statistically trustworthy estimates of mean time between primary bag repair. Note that Consumer Reports received just one response, and it was the simple sentence “Blimps are awesome”. Based on that, they immediately elevated it to the “Recommended” category. You won’t find such shenanigans here at TrueDelta. Also, I thought the handling was delightful, with a touch of oversteer at the limit. Find out more at TrueDelta.

As Sajeev Mehta and Steven Lang:

Steve: We see about five of these blimps a year and I have plenty of success selling them to down-on-their-luck single-mother companies like Cooper and Nexxen. Make sure you take a close look at the rear seam where the left engine housing attaches; it’s a problem point.

Sajeev: The question I’m asking myself is whether or not the outboard engines could be replaced with LS7s. Also, could wood trim be applied to other parts of the blimp’s interior to match the real-wood elevator wheel?

As Edward Niedermeyer:

This is the blimp nobody’s asking for. Decades after the Germans suffered fiery disaster with their dirigibles, we’ve got Goodyear putting both feet into the blimp biz. You’d have to be crazy to think this will end well. As it flies over Lordstown, Ohio, home of the union-sop second-rate whip known to all and sundry outside Korea as “Cruze”, one wonders if the two could somehow collide and perform an elaborate synecdoche of the perils of collective bargaining.

As Bertel Schmitt:

The Chinese Goodyear blimp, Spirit of Innovation, is bigger, faster, and it will not fail. Blimp sales are up 300% according to the fellow who pulled my rickshaw home from the massage parlor this evening.

As Jack Baruth:

As I strafed the helpless people of Akron, cackling like Cruella deVille, watching them scatter beneath the looming mass, I saw the finest-looking bitch imaginable cowering in fear next to her infant child. Quickly, I moored to the nearest lamppost, using the power of my mind in place of the eight-person team normally assigned to the task, and bid her enter. She stripped off her clothes, lay back in the cramped six-passenger gondola, and I shoved my [blimp] into her [Wingfoot Lake hangar facility], lubricated only by the flood of her [rain on the blimp's surface]. I noticed that there was no grass on the field, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

So there you have it. But what’s it really like to fly a blimp? In a nutshell, difficult, and someday I will tell you… but not now. I mean, it wouldn’t really fit in with the site’s mission, and I’m pretty sure there are a couple of people out there who would claim I was flying it wrong.

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Capsule Review: Ski-Doo MXZ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/03/capsule-review-ski-doo-mxz/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/03/capsule-review-ski-doo-mxz/#comments Thu, 03 Mar 2011 12:40:31 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=385847 The navicular, or scaphoid, bone, is a little bone in your wrist. About fifteen years ago, I broke both of mine during practice for a BMX National. Since my father was flying in to see me race that day, and since I didn’t want him to travel a long way for nothing, I wrapped duct […]

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The navicular, or scaphoid, bone, is a little bone in your wrist. About fifteen years ago, I broke both of mine during practice for a BMX National. Since my father was flying in to see me race that day, and since I didn’t want him to travel a long way for nothing, I wrapped duct tape around both my wrists and went out for the first heat anyway. When I landed the first jump, a modest fifteen-foot gap with a steep face to the landing, I nearly vomited from the intensity of the pain. Needless to say, things went downhill from there and as a result I’ve had trouble with my wrists ever since.

In the song “Twilight Zone”, Golden Earring sang, “You will come to know / when the bullet hits the bone.” I have come to know when I’m about to re-break one or both of my wrists. As I went flying through the air at fifty kilometers per hour, a tumbling snowmobile behind me and a hard sheet of ice ahead, I knew what was about to happen…

* * *

“It’s called a Can-Am Spyder,” I said. “It’s basically a snowmobile on wheels.” There was silence on the other end of the phone, but I imagined I could hear the wheels turning slowly in Vodka McBigbra’s head.

“You,” she opined after a few moments, “should take me to Canada to ride a snowmobile.”

“It’s September, you know.”

“Why are you changing the subject?” Why, indeed? I contacted my old pal Brian to see if he could find some Canadian snowmobiles, and four months later we were saddling a pair of Ski-Doo MXZs up for a tour of the Georgian Bay area. Brian was on one of the Ski-Doos, with Vodka riding behind me on the other. Looking back, I should have considered that

  • I had never ridden a snowmobile before;
  • I don’t like to lose any kind of race, whatsoever;
  • Any situation where someone else is anywhere near me on similar machinery feels like a “race” to me.

I think Vodka expected that our snowmobile tour would be a nice, leisurely ride down a long, tree-lined trail, but from the moment Brian disappeared around the first corner it became a full-throttle race down a long, tree-lined trail.

We should take a break at this point to explain how snowmobiles operate, just so TTACers who actually know something about snowmobiles can enjoy the pleasure of correcting me. There’s a little Rotax V-twin engine — I believe ours was a 440, although it could also have been a 600 — that connects to some kind of centrifugal clutch and turns a rolller. This roller moves a belt studded with paddles under the snowmobile, which digs the snow out from under you, creates a hole into which the snowmobile sinks, and causes you to have to dig the snowmobile out of that hole so you can continue on your way.

Our Ski-Doos couldn’t quite do 100km/h on flat ground, er, snow, but down the six-foot wide trail that had been bulldozed from three or four feet of snow and which was lined on both sides with the aforementioned trees, that seemed plenty fast. As with the Can-Am Spyder, some sort of leaning into turns is required, and some finesse with the throttle is also necessary to balance the thing so the rider is not constantly fighting understeer. My non-scientific impression of the MXZ’s acceleration was that it was roughly equal to that of a 250cc motorcycle with one passenger.

Two hours into our ride, the pace had gotten fairly hectic. The kids on bright pink and green machines who had zipped away from us at the beginning were now moving over for Brian and me as we continued to turn the wick up. V. McB had resigned herself to silent mirroring of my increasingly desperate hang-off moves. More and more of our turns were being taken flat-out. I was starting to consider myself quite the natural at snowmobile riding. I imagined myself on a bright green racing snowmobile, jumping a big set of snow doubles, pulling a no-hander, and possibly catching the eye of some Palin-esque young Alaska mother. The gap between us and Brian was down to perhaps twenty feet when we rounded a long, fast corner and I felt the handlebars go slack on the ice.

A snowmobile rider with experience would have perhaps hit the brakes to reduce the speed of impact. I treated the Ski-Doo like a race car and held constant throttle waiting for the traction to return, which resulted in me striking the angled wall of the dug-in trail with the left front ski. As I jumped clear, the sled began to tumble. I struck the ground about twenty feet later, rolling on impact but breaking my right wrist. Vodka was pinned beneath the upturned snowmobile. I crawled back and pulled the yellow-and-black machine off her, dragging her up the waist-high wall of snow and then returning to get the MXZ out of the way of anybody behind us. Brian continued without us, having no mirrors on his Ski-Doo.

Amazingly enough, the damage was limited to the nose cone, which I tossed out of the way as we prepared to continue. (Even more amazingly, the damage only billed out at $275 when I got the total a month later.) Vodka’s right foot was broken in at least one place but she was determined to continue, so we followed the trail for another three hours at a somewhat reduced pace before arriving back at the free-standing little building sans electricity or heat that served as the snowmobile rental office.

While my companion elevated her bright-purple toes, I provided my plum Amex to the cheerful fellow who operated the agency. “You know,” he said, “there’s a bit of a ramp to the edge of the parking lot of there. Didn’t you say you were a BMX rider at some point? Did you want to try jumping one of the Ski-Doos?”

“Would you,” I inquired, “happen to have any duct tape?”

* * *

Ed’s been very tolerant of these non-car reviews this week, but I promised him I would save my other articles, on a jet-ski and a Goodyear Blimp, until another time. Still, it’s been fun writing about subjects on which I have no qualifications whatsoever. This must be what it’s like to be a GM blogger! — jb

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Capsule Review: Can-Am Spyder http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/03/capsule-review-can-am-spyder/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/03/capsule-review-can-am-spyder/#comments Wed, 02 Mar 2011 14:35:13 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=385498 One hundred miles per hour. The once-fabled “ton” which my 1990 Volkswagen Fox struggled to indicate on its outrageously optimistic speedometer is now a commonplace, ho-hum event. Many modern cars will get there in ten or eleven seconds. Even heavy-duty pickups have no trouble pushing their Maximum Overdrive front fascias into the triple digits nowadays […]

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One hundred miles per hour. The once-fabled “ton” which my 1990 Volkswagen Fox struggled to indicate on its outrageously optimistic speedometer is now a commonplace, ho-hum event. Many modern cars will get there in ten or eleven seconds. Even heavy-duty pickups have no trouble pushing their Maximum Overdrive front fascias into the triple digits nowadays — and everything from the Fiesta to the F-450 feels rock-solid at that speed.

The magic, thrill, and terror are all gone from the one after ninety-nine… but if you want to bring it all back, and then some, it’s as close as a trip to your local Can-Am dealer. Driving the Spyder three-wheeler at that speed is, frankly, terrifying.

The Can-Am Spyder isn’t a three-wheeler in the same vein as the renimated Moggie trike, although it also has two wheels in front and one behind. No, this is very much a motorcycle-plus-one instead of a car-minus-one. The rider sits in a position very familiar to BMW touring-bike pilots and operates a motorcycle-style set of controls. If you don’t have some experience on bikes, the Can-Am won’t make any sense to you.

If, on the other hand, you do have some experience on bikes, the Can-Am probably won’t make any sense to you either. I’ve been riding street bikes since 1991 and I was immediately made quite uncomfortable by the way the Can-Am steers. Real motorcycles are steered by pushing down/away on the handlebar end in the direction of one’s intended turn. This causes the bike to fall to that side and to veer, er, steer, that way. The Spyder, on the other hand, is steered by turning the bars towards one’s intended direction.

Once the turn begins, the rider is forced to hang on to the machine by pressing his knees against the seat and pulling on the handlebars. It literally feels like the Can-Am is trying to throw its rider off. It takes an extremely vigorous (and extremely dorky-looking) lean towards the inside of the corner to preserve anything like cornering force. If you’ve ridden a snowmobile, you will be good at riding a Spyder — although the reverse is not true, as we’ll find out in another Capsule Review.

There are now several different models from which to choose in the Cam-Am lineup, from stripped-down monocrhomatic sportster to full-dress tourer. Two transmissions are available: a traditional five-speed clutched box or a clutchless five-speed operated by an electronic paddle shift. I took a Spyder rS which had 106 horsepower and the standard transmission to push 699 pounds dry weight. That’s about the same power-to-weight ratio as a base Corvette, and acceleration is similarly rapid…

…or similarly slow, if you’ve been riding modern sportbikes. Not to worry, because you wouldn’t want this vehicle to be any faster. On an open two-lane near the Road America track, I twisted the throttle and hung on for dear life as the Spyder zoomed to nearly 110mph. The front end started to wander — did I mention that each of the 165/65R14 tires at that end are inflated to just 15 psi? Consider it mentioned — and I was yanked back and forth as crosswinds tried to blow the trike out from under me. My motorcycle-trained steering responses were all wrong, actually pointing me towards a ditch. I oscillated helplessly for the approximately one minute I had determined would indicate that I was not an arrant coward before throttling down to a more sensible fifty-five. That’s a law I can live with, at least on this rig.

Oops! Time to make a fast turn. I hung my entire body off the Spyder and prayed. As the inside front wheel lifted off the mother-flicking ground I idly wondered what the effect would be of applying extra throttle, or any brake input, in midcorner. Probably death. That was the last corner I took at any speed much above the suggested limit. I can only imagine what a road like the Tail of the Dragon would be like on a Can-Am Spyder; most likely, it would be the long-non-awaited combination of a particularly vigorous P90X workout, one of the “Fry Guy” spring perches for children at a McDonald’s PlayPlace, and Russian roulette.

The rest of the test drive passed in kind of an odd haze as I wavered between going slower (to save my skin) and going faster (to make it come to an end sooner). Automobile drivers looked at me with open mouths, motorcyclists clucked in pity, and cyclists were ejected, screaming, into ditches as I wobbled left and right across the road. Twenty miles or so later, I was safe and sound in the parking lot, kneeling in what I hoped would look like genuine interest in the brake calipers while I thanked Almighty God for my survival.

I’ve operated a lot of fast machinery, from the Hayabusa and its compatriots to eight-hundred-horsepower Porsche GT2 tuner cars, but nothing has ever made me sit up in sheer terror like the Can-Am Spyder. It’s a true challenge to operate at speed and if you have no children about which you should be worrying I’d recommend giving one a shot. For the fifteen grand or so it would cost to buy one, however, I think most of us would be better served with a Yamaha R1 and some PTSD therapy to forget the test ride.

As a tourer, the Can-am probably works very well. As a sporting machine, it’s mostly notable for the way it delivers thrills at all speeds, even if those speeds are well south of the modest 100-mph mark.

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Capsule Review: 2000 Saab 9-3 and the Free Rolex http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/capsule-review-2000-saab-9-3-and-the-free-rolex/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/01/capsule-review-2000-saab-9-3-and-the-free-rolex/#comments Sun, 30 Jan 2011 04:08:43 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=382235 In my Nissan Frontier Capsule Review, I briefly mentioned the fact that I’d had a Saab 9-3 prior to said Frontier. Well, as it turned out, I ended up having the Saab after the Frontier, as well. Before I could take possession of said little turbocharged hatchback for the second time and send it back […]

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In my Nissan Frontier Capsule Review, I briefly mentioned the fact that I’d had a Saab 9-3 prior to said Frontier. Well, as it turned out, I ended up having the Saab after the Frontier, as well. Before I could take possession of said little turbocharged hatchback for the second time and send it back to the lease company where it belonged, however, I had to beg, threaten, and — depending on your definition of the word — perhaps steal.

Prince’s suggestions aside, I didn’t party much in 1999. Instead, I formed two businesses: a nonprofit web-hosting cooperative designed to provide affordable space to individuals and small businesses who were interested in using the Debian operating system, and a tech consulting firm. One of my partners in the latter was a fifty-something veteran of the food-brokerage industry who could sell the proverbial ice to the proverbial Eskimos. Before we knew it, we had some pretty decent clients and a little bit of income coming in.

My partner was a big believer in not showing a lot of profit on the books, so we went looking for some company cars to burn up the money. His credit was dismal, a casualty of starting a dozen businesses and declaring bankruptcy at least twice, so he wound up paying $800 a month for a used Cadillac STS. I had done a better job of adhering to the American secular religion of debt and repayment so I found myself at the local Saab dealer signing up for a 2000 Saab 9-3 “S” five-speed for the bargain rate of $339 a month over thirty-six months.

Some of you will have forgotten the original Saab 9-3, so let’s review. GM bought Saab in the early nineties and promptly replaced the company’s long-serving “900”, a long-nose variant of the positively ancient Saab “99”, with the “900 NG”. The brand’s loyalists were horrified; the “new” 900 was basically an old Opel with a transverse engine, generic styling, depressing interior materials, and a suspension that produced torque steer at almost any power level.

In 1999 Saab performed a modest revision of the 900NG to create the 9-3. In most ways, the 9-3 was better than its predecessor, but it was still pretty far from good enough. However, it had a few things that very few other cars in its price segment could offer: the availability of a hatchback in both three-and-five-door body styles, the combination of a turbo engine and a manual transmission, and some absolutely monstrous incentives courtesy of GMAC.

Those incentives put me behind the wheel of a black base-model five-door with leather interior, 185 horsepower from a light-pressure turbo, and dowdy-looking fifteen-inch alloys. At the time, I was still spending most of my nights at a skatepark or BMX track and the Saab’s ability to swallow a few bikes was quite convenient. The seats were better than good and the heater loops embedded into those seats could boil water if required.

The GM people wanted Saab to be a luxury car, perhaps not understanding that Saab had never really sold luxury cars. They’d sold expensive cars, but those cars were only expensive because they’d been dragged across an ocean and priced in a different currency. There was nothing luxury-car about the 9-3. The driveline, in particular, sounded cheap and the shift lever felt like its operating cables were long enough to hang the Golden Gate Bridge.

This was also the era of the ridiculous “Born From Jets” advertising. To provide that advertising with the barest connection to reality, Saab equipped the 9-3 with the “Black Panel”. The Black Panel was an enormous button that, when pressed at night, cut the illumination to every gauge except the speedometer. The idea was that only critical information would be communicated to the pilot, I mean, driver. If one of the gauges reached a “critical area”, it would light up. Supposedly this was the way LearJets worked. The way it worked in practice:

  • Explain “Black Panel” to passenger;
  • Press Black Panel button;
  • Observe the non-impressed countenance of passenger;
  • Drive for a while in Black Panel;
  • Shriek like little girl when the fuel gauge falls below a quarter-tank and lights up out of nowhere in CRITICAL MODE;
  • Never press Black Panel button again.

The money it took to develop the Black Panel would have been better-spent on brakes. The 9-3 was not a great stopper and the ABS cycle rate seemed very slow. Or it could have been used to address the torque steer, which was miserable despite the engine’s modest power level. At least it was possible to make relatively rapid progress if one could hold the steering wheel straight, since there was plenty of area under the curve on the power chart.

About a year into my lease, my partner came to me with some surprising information. We were broke. Although we were making decent money, his purchase and complete renovation of a massive home had eaten up our profits. He’d decided to revamp the business into a cell-phone distributorship, and he had new partners. I agreed to walk away from the business for a modest consideration, leaving the Saab behind as a condition of said agreement.

Come the year 2002, I’d all but forgotten the little hatchback when the calls from GMAC started. My lease payment was ninety days past due. Would I mind addressing it? Not at all. I called my partner, who told me the Saab had been stolen and that therefore he’d stopped making payments. Upon further questioning, he revealed that “stolen” meant “taken by the new partner in the business in lieu of repayment on a major loan.” I went to see the cops anyway. They explained to me that, although I had not handed the keys to the new partner, I had handed the keys to the dude who had handed the keys to him, and that therefore there was no theft involved.

I called the new partner and got his secretary. His secretary referred me to his attorney. I called the attorney, who informed me that his partner had a perfect right to hold the car as long as he wanted to. I explained to the attorney that the two parties holding title to the car were GMAC and Jack Baruth, and that my old partner wasn’t really suffering. He explained to me that he didn’t care. I asked him to please reconsider. He declined. At that point I threw caution to the winds and explained that

a) I was being placed in a desperate situation;
b) people in desperate situations did desperate things;
c) his client worked late at night in a bad part of town and I couldn’t necessarily prevent his client from being shot in the face by vagrants, even though I drove by there all the time.

Two weeks later, I met the new partner behind the automatic gate of a Public Storage facility, along with his attorney, and watched as my Saab was backed out of a rental garage. It looked terrible. Every panel was scratched and dented. The rim of one wheel was so badly bent I was surprised it was holding air. The new partner had been smoking in the car for almost a year. It stank. It was filthy. The seats were torn. I felt sick to my stomach, but in moments I was gone, accompanied by an odd noise from the transmission.

I don’t remember what I had planned for that weekend, but I remember what I ended up doing: cleaning that car from bumper to bumper with Q-tips, alcohol, thick brushes, peroxide, and (I kid you not) sandpaper. Near the end of the ordeal, I opened the glovebox… and found a Rolex Air-King. I knew it belonged to the new partner because it had suffered the same kind of abuse to which my Saab had been subjected. The mineral crystal was scratched and the leather was worn. I figured it for a fake and tossed it on the kitchen island.

Two weeks later, the GMAC inspector stopped by for the end-of-lease paperwork. She looked at the car for a long time, took a lot of notes, and, to my amazement, announced that there would be no damage penalty. It turns out that GMAC used the same criteria for Saabs as they did for Silverados and Suburbans. I couldn’t believe my luck. Some stories have a happy ending…

…and the story got a bit happier. My wife saw the fake Rolex sitting on the island and ran it to the local jeweler. It wasn’t fake, and they wrote her a check on the spot. Eight hundred bucks. I figured it as a hundred-dollar-an-hour detail job. A week later, the phone rang.

“Uh, hey, that car I gave back to you?”

“What about it?”

“You, uh, find a watch in there?” I told him where he could look for the watch, but unless he owned some very specialized medical equipment, I doubt that he ever managed to follow that advice.

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Capsule Review: 2001 Nissan Frontier And The Two Who Got Away http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/capsule-review-2001-nissan-frontier-and-the-two-who-got-away/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/capsule-review-2001-nissan-frontier-and-the-two-who-got-away/#comments Tue, 28 Dec 2010 21:54:50 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=377984 “I have something to tell you, but you cannot, I repeat, must not do anything about it.” “Is it something I want to hear?” “Yes, it is. But you have to swear.” “Okay. I swear. Now tell me.” “Maro is getting a divorce.” Oh. Maro. I remember you, swinging your legs, your perfect profile and […]

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“I have something to tell you, but you cannot, I repeat, must not do anything about it.”

“Is it something I want to hear?”

“Yes, it is. But you have to swear.”

“Okay. I swear. Now tell me.”

“Maro is getting a divorce.” Oh. Maro. I remember you, swinging your legs, your perfect profile and staggeringly voluptuous figure backlit by the sun, and I remember you seated next to me, so long ago, in that little gold Nissan truck. Do you remember me?

It was a decade ago. I’d walked away from a business I founded in 1999, leaving my 2000 Saab 9-3 company car with the company. Although it was my company car, I’d had to sign on the lease paperwork when we got it, and that would eventually come back to haunt me in a rather terrifying fashion… but that’s a story for another time. I owned two other cars; a Plymouth Voyager minivan, which I gave to the profoundly Asperger’s-esque partner in my new business, and a 1990 Plymouth Colt, which I gave to the same guy when he lost the keys to the Voyager shortly after forgetting where he’d parked said Voyager anyway. Somehow I’d gone from three cars and a motorcycle to just a motorcycle. I needed a vehicle. Something absolutely reliable and fiscally reasonable.

It also needed to carry some bicycles, because I was making a final run at BMX racing and freestyle. I’d discovered just the right cocktail of medication, meditation, and manipulation to let me ride at a skatepark for up to an hour before my knees fell apart and I ended up huddled in a corner dry-heaving from pain. I ran all these variables through my internal abacus and came up with the idea of a Nissan Frontier XE King Cab.

Finding just the right truck took some time. I wanted the plain black plastic bumpers and I didn’t want automatic transmission or any “popular packages”. I wanted a basic, five-speed, roll-up window truck with a bedliner. My final out-the-door price was about $14,100 from a sticker price in the high fifteens. Seemed like a decent deal.

Almost immediately, I was annoyed by the little Nissan. I hadn’t rolled-up my own windows in years and it turned out that I hated doing it. The truck was noisy and gutless. The seats were back-breakers on long trips to out-of-state BMX tracks. Worst of all, the stereo was abysmal, so I hired a friend of a friend to fix that situation. When the fellow arrived, he turned out to be a friendly, handsome twenty-four-year old fellow with… an absolute stunner of a wife.

Over the next few weeks, I put a few thousand dollars into the stereo and I inveigled my way into the lives of our new friends. They were broke but Mrs. Stereo Installer, whom we shall call Maro, had a taste for the finer things in life. Meanwhile, I had plenty of disposable income thanks to my economical truck purchase. It was a match made in Hell as we dined out night after night, dressed to the nines, first as a pair of couples and then, finally, as just her and me. Our spouses were annoyed by the whirlwind pace of our quasi-courtship. There was only room for two people in this relationship.

There was also really only room for two people in my little truck, particularly after it had a brace of “JL Audio” amplifiers installed. It sounded fantastic and I could almost overlook the idea that I was driving around a crummy little truck when the tunes were cranked. The 2001 Frontier was really just a mild facelift of the original post-Hardbody truck, and although I respected it for being the last genuine small import pickup, I was starting to think that I’d really enjoy something with a little more room for people and a little less rolling-of-the-windows.

A year and about twenty-six thousand miles into my life with the Frontier, I decided to shuck it off in favor of a little Land Rover Freelander. With a four-bike hitch rack, I could take my friends to the races. I’d stop rolling up my windows. I’d have more mobility in the weather; one of the annoying things about being a Midwestern BMX rider is that pretty much every day starts with a car trip somewhere, whether to a skatepark or an indoor track. The Rover dealer offered me the Freelander at invoice minus rebate, but only wanted to give me $6800 for the Nissan. What the hell. I handed it over. Little did I know that, had I held on the truck, I could probably sell it for close to that now. Good-condition Frontiers are worth good money.

Naturally, the new Rover required a much more comprehensive stereo installation… and the Discovery I bought just ten months after that required an even more comprehensive job. Night after night, my young friend sweated in the footwells of crookedly assembled British trucks while Maro and I shopped, dined, listened to music. We held her birthday party at my house. I wrote her resume. She called me and I walked outside to take the call.

One afternoon we were at the Coach store, I was making some ridiculous joke along the lines of, “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it,” and the saleslady said to us, “You two are the perfect couple. I’ve never seen two young people so in love, and so wonderful together.”

“He isn’t my husband,” Maro replied, eyes downcast.

“Maybe he should be.” She looked at me. And I, dear reader, I laughed. Under no circumstances would I ever divorce. I laughed. With one chance to say something to a woman with whom I rather thought I might be in love, I laughed. Out of conceit, arrogance, nervousness, fear. We walked out silently. Later on that week, the phone rang. It was my installer. In a voice that was close to tears, he informed me that although he valued my business, he could no longer help me with my cars. I pulled the stereo equipment from my last Rover. It’s all still in my basement, packed up where I cannot reach it or think about it too much.

I should have kept the truck. I could use it now. A good small truck is always welcome. And now I hear that Maro is single again, but what would I say if I saw her again? Only the truth; that we were opaque to each other then, and would always be so if we fell together again.

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Capsule Review: Volvo C30 EV http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/capsule-review-volvo-c30-ev/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/capsule-review-volvo-c30-ev/#comments Wed, 22 Dec 2010 18:54:52 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=378306 While at the LA Auto Show in November, TTAC was invited by Volvo to sample the Volvo C30 electric concept car. More a pre-production than concept, the C30 electric will supposedly hit the streets as a 2012 model-year car. So what does the Chinese-Swedish brand, known more for safety than drivetrain innovations, have in store […]

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While at the LA Auto Show in November, TTAC was invited by Volvo to sample the Volvo C30 electric concept car. More a pre-production than concept, the C30 electric will supposedly hit the streets as a 2012 model-year car. So what does the Chinese-Swedish brand, known more for safety than drivetrain innovations, have in store for the electric market? I’m happy to report that the answer is: nothing out of the ordinary.

During our quick 30 minutes spent with the C30 electric and Lennart Stegland, president of Volvo Special Vehicles, the first thing that strikes you about the C30 electric is how normal it is. While Nissan dressed the Leaf in some funky new duds, classily conservative Volvo has “simply electrified” the existing C30. Of course that makes the task sound far simpler than it is as nearly every part of the C30 except the cosmetic items had to be re-engineered to accommodate the 110HP electric drivetrain.

Obviously all electric cars are crash tested, but I have never seen quite the focus on safety that Volvo has brought to the electric car game. Even the formulation of the Lithium-Ion battery has been changed to make the battery unit behave more safely in a collision. Lennart explained that the C30 electric will be just as safe as the C30 which already gets high marks for crash performance.

Out on the road the C30 feels like a golf cart. I was told by Lennart that this was insulting (my apologies), but I have to say that for the average American, a golf cart is the only frame for reference we have for an electric vehicle, so it’s not intended as an insult. What do I mean by a golf cart? Well, the power delivery is seamless and acceleration is extremely linear. Because of the way the C30 electric is programmed, the regenerative braking takes effect as soon as you let off the go pedal reducing the need in normal traffic for using the brake pedal. Fortunately there is a “sailing” mode that disables regenerative braking entirely making the car feel more “normal.” I’m sure it would be easy to get used to this behavior, but at the same time I wish there was a middle option with light regenerative braking. Other than the aggressive regeneration, the 30 drives just like a gasoline C30 when it comes to the curves. I had some limited chances to take it briskly around turns, and despite gaining weight (260lbs) due to the 24 kWh battery pack (from EnerDel) the C30 feels well composed. The C30 electric will never be a hot hatch, but performance is certainly on par with most compact gasoline vehicles available in the US.

Interior quality is high as we have come to expect from Volvo. I could only wish that the Volvo P1 platform interior is scheduled for a serious refresh for 2012 since the S40/V50/C30/C70 interior has been with us for some years. It’s not a bad interior; it’s actually quite competitive even still in terms of fit and finish and design. But change is lovely and after driving the 2011 S60 for a week I am anxious to see what could be done to bring the C30 interior up to date.

Driving range on the C30 electric is expected to be 100 miles according to Lennart. In reality this will vary between 80 and 120 miles depending on your driving style and the weather. It stands to reason that as lithium battery technology improves we should see models with ranges more compatible with American driving styles. My personal daily commute is 82 miles round trip (including going over a 2,200ft mountain pass from sea level) would tax the range of the C30. Round-trip commutes fewer than 60 miles should be free from range-anxiety, but it is still a concern. Since longer commutes are more typical of the American driver than the European driver, I expect adoption rates to be low on this side of the pond until we see a model with a true 200 mile range. Not helping the issue at all is the charging time of any electric vehicle. At 110V it would take almost an entire day to charge any of the all-electric vehicle available or planned for release in the next few years. Unless you have a 220V outlet in your garage or access to a fast charge station (440V) at work, don’t expect to drive to the maximum of your range on a daily basis. For the most part, apartment dwellers need not apply.

It’s good to know Volvo is sticking with the pack on electric car technology; Volvo missed the hybrid bandwagon last decade, but if the C30 electric is any indication is may just be a viable alternative for the urbanite hat has a second set of wheels for road trips. Meanwhile we’re lobbying Volvo for a longer term C30 electric loaner. Stay tuned.

Volvo made the vehicle for this review available at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

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Capsule Review: 2007 Honda Accord EX V6 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-2007-honda-accord-ex-v6/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-2007-honda-accord-ex-v6/#comments Tue, 30 Nov 2010 19:03:47 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=375032 “Hurry up,” the woman at the counter said, “because when you get back they are waiting to take it to the auction.” The odometer read just over forty-nine thousand, eight hundred miles. It would have been temptingly romantic to think of this as a last ride on a trusty horse before it went to the […]

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“Hurry up,” the woman at the counter said, “because when you get back they are waiting to take it to the auction.” The odometer read just over forty-nine thousand, eight hundred miles. It would have been temptingly romantic to think of this as a last ride on a trusty horse before it went to the knacker’s, but let’s get real: forty-nine K on an Accord is just getting started. As John Mayer once sang, it might be a quarter-life crisis. Let’s get rolling.

Four years ago, Jonny Lieberman penned a rather enthusiastic paean to a six-speed manual variant of the V-6 previous-gen Accord, but our test example is the far, far more common five-speed automatic, using 244 horsepower to push about 3,300 pounds down the road. For the past four years, this has been nobody’s car, shuffling around between fleet users, loaner trips, and general neglect. The wheels have been curbed, there are scrapes and dings all the way ’round, and the interior shows measurable wear on all the touch points. You wouldn’t treat your Accord this way, unless you hated it.

I couldn’t help but compare the Accord’s condition to the Sonata I rented earlier this year. With similar mileage, the Accord was showing slightly more wear on an interior that, honestly, didn’t seem assembled to quite the same standard. In particular, sun-related fading was evident on the leather in several places. I don’t think it’s particularly fair to a car to let it sit out in the Ohio summer sun for a few years without so much as a dab of Lexol. On the positive side, the plastic-esque leather had less cracking in it than the seats of a few four-thousand-mile Porsches I’ve driven lately.

Upon its introduction, the seventh-generation Accord seemed like a big car, and the 2006 facelift did make it the first “mid-sized” Honda to crack the 190-inch mark. It’s a solid foot longer than the hidden-headlamp Accord sedans that prowled the neighborhood of my youth, and almost three feet longer than a ’77 hatchback. How quickly times change. Compared to the current Malibu, Sonata, or — yes — Accord, this is a low-waisted wisp of a car, with an invisible hood and controls set way down in one’s lap. Visibility is disturbingly good. I fear the Accord that will make the current model feel this small, but from what I’ve read the 2012 or 2013 car will actually be “right-sized” a bit. Good.

On the road, the experience is pure generic Camcord. The transmission is slow to respond and the torque converter has plenty of slip, but the engine’s willingness to rev offsets this a bit. It’s certainly fast enough for most purposes, but I wouldn’t bother to get the V-6. Accords are meant to be four-cylinder cars in the same way that every full-sized American car ever built deserves to burble with a sound of a lightly-muffled vee-eight. The steering is accurate and forthright, and the brakes were up to the rather modest task of freeway cruising set before this particular vehicle.

Having just driven fifty miles in my Town Car, I wasn’t surprised that the Honda seemed loud and rough in comparison, but I was surprised at the refinement gap between this car and the current-gen Accord. Wind noise was high, road noise was everywhere, and the engine sounded positively industrial, even at high revs. You can’t make a car this big this light without cutting something out somewhere, and I suspect thin glass and a low amount of insulation are responsible for the mechanical medley which swings well past susurrus.

It’s easy to see, in retrospect, why General Motors was so confident about the Malibu. It must have seemed that they were bringing a gun to a knife fight, producing a car which was more spacious, quieter, sleeker, and considerably more stylish than the Japanese competition. What a surprise, then, to see that the succeeding Accord became a Japanese Malibu itself, swelling to a point that the Chevrolet looked modestly sized and styled.

Jonny’s review of this automobile painted it, rather improbably, as a Japanese BMW killer. I see things a bit differently. Although my test car was undergoing a bit of a quarter-life crisis, it was produced by a company undergoing a full-fledged mid-life variant of same. This Accord can’t decide if it’s a small car or a large car. It offers a big engine and an automatic transmission but neither perform as buyers in the segment truly expect. It’s long but relatively narrow, spacious where it needs to be but rather insubstantial-feeling, expensive but noisy. It would be best sampled as a manual-transmission four-cylinder, with the outdated-looking LCD center display left on the options rack and the not-quite leather ditched in favor of sensible cloth.

Think of it as a toe dipped in the Rubicon. After this car, Honda would give up on many of the things that made a car feel Honda-like. The low cowl and nervous road feel would disappear. The V-6 would become the engine of choice, the dashboard would swell, the look would change from friendly to deliberately intimidating. Yet in this particular model, there isn’t enough of the old Honda left to charm. Jonny found the Accord to be a revelation, but I can only find a Revelation, namely 3:15:

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

Any classically educated person knows the next verse, right?

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Capsule Review: 2001 Hyundai Elantra http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-2001-hyundai-elantra/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-2001-hyundai-elantra/#comments Thu, 18 Nov 2010 19:30:52 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=373246 We’re coming to the end of KOREA! WEEK! and we still haven’t answered the question: When did Hyundai start becoming a serious player in this market? When did the image change from Deadly Sin to default-choice affordable car? One can go back as far as the second-generation Excel, which cracked the reliability equation while still […]

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We’re coming to the end of KOREA! WEEK! and we still haven’t answered the question: When did Hyundai start becoming a serious player in this market? When did the image change from Deadly Sin to default-choice affordable car? One can go back as far as the second-generation Excel, which cracked the reliability equation while still being rust-prone as all get out. Alternately, perhaps it wasn’t until the arrival of the current Sonata that the brand became worthy of being chosen by the frozen Middle American masses.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and I’d suggest that the car you see above was the true turning point. The first-generation Elantra (Lantra to the Cammy Corrigan crowd) was pleasant enough, but it didn’t even pretend to compete with Civics and Corollas. Hyundai was assumed to know its place, and that place was among the credit criminals, desperately poor, and the hopelessly stupid. Ten years ago, however, the Elantra woke up and decided that nobody was going to put it in a corner.

In 1999, I was winding down my spectacularly unsuccessful professional BMX career, in which I had racked up over a dozen broken bones and some absolutely hilarious-sounding internal injuries (ever have your hipbone shoved through your bladder? Howabout a femur broken into four free-floating pieces?) and I’d decided to concentrate on training younger riders. I’d been corresponding with some up-and-coming pros in South America and I suggested that they stay with me for a while and train. Five of them ended up showing up. Three have since quit the sport and become respected members of government and industry around the world. One broke his neck that Christmas but has since mounted a comeback and won professional events all around North and South America.

One of them simply never left the country, marrying an American girl and pursuing a pro BMX career here. We call him Jamalama, and he’s become a member of the family in many ways.

You can see why I got sick of racing against kids like him and decided to go beat up on orthodontists at Porsche Club events. Jamalama owned two Saabs in a row — an Eighties 900 Turbo which died at 260,000 miles and a 900NG Turbo which was hit from behind and totaled at the 150K mark — but after seeing the reliable service my brother had gotten from his Tiburon and his wife’s 2001 Elantra, the young rider decided to give Hyundai a shot.

We bought the car in 2005; it had 72,000 miles on it. Since then, it’s gone to pretty much every state in the Union where a BMX race has been held. As of this morning, it’s showing 154,967 on the odo. Repairs have been light: the fuel tank sensor went out and it’s gone through a pair of ball joints and front brake calipers. This is the kind of reliability which used to be synonymous with “Toyota”. Year after year, it’s started and run without effort or difficulty. This matches the service that my brother’s wife got from her Elantra, which she eventually gave to our mother and which we sold for $3000 with 95,000 trouble-free miles on the odometer.

Let’s put this another way: in the first year I had my 2005 Phaeton V8, it racked up more days in the service bay than two 2001 Elantras did over a combined 14 vehicle-years and 160,000 miles in our possession. Service on these little cars is trivially easy; I can do brake pads on an Elantra in an hour and I’m not known for being a solid mechanic. And although the ladies in the family were easy on their Elantra, Jamalama seems to continually coming up with ways to abuse his:

It’s hard to overestimate the impact that producing cars of this quality and durability can have on a manufacturer’s reputation. This is good, because the Elantra occasionally falls short on the desirability side of the equation. As with the Tiburon, the control efforts are artificially light and more than lightly artificial. All the Elantras I’ve seen of this generation have what I think of as a “Korean smell”; the plastics simply aren’t what we are used to from the domestic and Japanese manufacturers and their outgassing has a decidedly unique quality. I’m certain that a Korean customer looking at one of the rare Chevrolet Cobalts that made it into the country would have a similar olfactory experience. Eventually you get used to it.

The odd ergonomics aren’t as easy to overlook, and the selection of interior materials ranges from “depressing” to “ridiculous”. Luckily for Hyundai, however, their gradual improvement in this regard happened to come just as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan were looking for ways to cut costs out of their small cars. The ’93 Corolla felt like a little LS400, but the ’01 Corolla failed to continue on that admirable path and the price didn’t reflect the savings enjoyed by its manufacturer. Put plainly, the Corolla was the default choice, but the Elantra was the smart choice, particularly if you expected to drive it long enough for the reduced resale value to not be an issue.

When my brother’s wife bought her Elantra, I called it “a good car for the price”. A decade later, I’ve revised my opinion on these Elantras. They aren’t good cars for the price. They are simply good cars.

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Capsule Review: 2000 Hyundai Tiburon http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-2000-hyundai-tiburon/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-2000-hyundai-tiburon/#comments Tue, 16 Nov 2010 18:02:06 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=373008 You could look at the accident one of two ways. The first way to look at it was that the backhoe was at fault. It backed out halfway across the northbound exit ramp to Bethel Road from Ohio SR-315, forcing my brother to take too rapid of an avoidance maneuver, spin his pristine Porsche 944, […]

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You could look at the accident one of two ways. The first way to look at it was that the backhoe was at fault. It backed out halfway across the northbound exit ramp to Bethel Road from Ohio SR-315, forcing my brother to take too rapid of an avoidance maneuver, spin his pristine Porsche 944, and hit a streetlight, causing said streetlight to fall into the freeway traffic.

The second way to look at it — and, in fairness, I must note that this view was the one espoused by the Columbus Police — was that my brother, Mark, had been traveling at perhaps one hundred miles per hour (“More like one twenty,” he sniffed to me in the aftermath) and that therefore the backhoe operator could have had no reasonable expectation that the red Porsche+Audi would arrive well before he could move back off the road.

Either way, it was time for the punishment car.

When I totaled my 200SX at the tender age of sixteen, my punishment car was a Mercury Marquis Brougham. Mark, on the other hand, never crashed a car in his teenage years. What he did manage to do was comprehensively trash a new Jetta and a new Infiniti G20 in series, the latter so badly that the lease-end damage report ran to seven thousand dollars and multiple pages. Dad decided he should have a used car, but somehow “used car” ended up being “absolutely pristine 2.7-liter 944 formerly owned by the local TV news princess”.

“There’s good news and bad news,” my bro said to me on the phone. “The good news is that I have a Porsche and I’m six years younger than you are. The bad news is that your shitbox Land Rover left the line with no factory options.” I looked out the window, saw the “SD” logo on my ’97 Disco five-speed, and hung my head in the appropriate level of shame. Half a year later, I used that same crappy truck to pick him up at the accident scene.

The next day, two proposals were placed before our father, who art in New York. Mark suggested replacing the 944 with a Boxster. I suggested replacing it with a Hyundai. The old man must have been annoyed; not only did he accede to my suggestion, he told Mark that his role would be limited to co-signer of the loan. “Hyundais,” he responded, “are for daytime strippers who are no longer particularly compelled by the current Grand Am’s styling.” I thought this was ironic, given that he was seeing two daytime strippers at the time, but I had to concede that he spoke from experience.

Objections aside, the next day we went to see the four-headlamp Tiburon. At $13,900 or so (according to my distant recollection), it was surprisingly well-equipped. In a straight line it didn’t give up much to the 944, and if it had a rather dismal black-plastic interior, it also had a strong, clear sound system. As with the Elantra and Accent of the time, the control efforts were somewhat surreal. The clutch gave the impression of having no spring attached to it, offering the meekest of pedal resistance. The gearshift waved around in space, occasionally notching lightly into a slot when the stars aligned just so. The brakes approximated Citroen’s famous rubber button, going from “no stop” to “full stop” in one soggy inch. Steering was distant from the road and the column wobbled gently.

At six foot two, I found the roof too low; at five foot eight, Mark found the window sills too high. The silver paint used for accenting throughout the interior looked like it would fade and rub off, and that appearance was not deceiving. The rear seats were a cruel, cramped joke, and the hatchback covered a very oddly shaped cargo area which seemed to be full the minute my brother threw his tenor saxophone and gig bag in there.

On a fast back-road test drive, the Tiburon revealed an odd quality. Although everything felt flimsy, the car really wasn’t flimsy at all. It had some torsional rigidity and was trustworthy in the turns. Once the shifter’s peculiarities entered one’s kinesthetic memory, it was fast enough to use and the clutch was abuse-proof. Best of all, it seemed to have enough brake. Mark said something that is probably repeated nationally a thousand times a day, even now: “Hyundais are a lot better than I thought they would be.” We closed the deal at invoice and hit the road.

Something happened to my brother. He kept his new car clean and free of debris. Over the next few years, the Tiburon stayed looking good, even as the odometer crested 70,000 miles. I can’t ascribe it to having to make his own payments, because he regularly forgot to make them, sometimes for months at a time. I think the car simply earned his respect.

The daytime strippers disappeared, replaced by a doctoral student of clarinet performance. She arrived in a Nissan Sentra but was soon driving a new Elantra, converted by Mark’s pro-Hyundai fervor. The Tiburon gave way to a loaded Santa Fe. For years my brother told everybody who would listen what a great damn car the Koreans could make. His friends bought Hyundais. He started to inquire as to why I didn’t have any Hyundais.

“Your new Land Rover may have all the options,” he would say, “but the Santa Fe 3.5L offers more for less.” Finally, annoyed unto death by his conversion from jazz artist to Seoul man, I dragged him to a Mazda dealer and made him drive an RX-8. He got out of the car and announced his intention to buy it. “Great car,” he said, and then, wistfully,

“It reminds me of my Tiburon.”

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Capsule Review: Jaguar XJ-S V-12 “HE” http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-jaguar-xj-s-v-12-he/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-jaguar-xj-s-v-12-he/#comments Wed, 10 Nov 2010 17:31:24 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=372080 Why did we have an eleven-year-old, scratch-and-dent, no-maintenance-records, twelve-cylinder Jaguar on our lot? Blame our naive sales manager, who always paid top dollar for trades. In his haste to revolutionize the way people bought and sold luxury cars in Dublin, Ohio, “Steve” tended to ignore the established car-sales playbook. At the time, I thought he […]

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Why did we have an eleven-year-old, scratch-and-dent, no-maintenance-records, twelve-cylinder Jaguar on our lot? Blame our naive sales manager, who always paid top dollar for trades. In his haste to revolutionize the way people bought and sold luxury cars in Dublin, Ohio, “Steve” tended to ignore the established car-sales playbook. At the time, I thought he was bold; I now realize he was stupid.

It’s famously said that the SCCA road-racing rulebook is “written in blood”. Every rule in the book is a lesson learned from a tragic occurrence. By the same token, every rule in the car-sales biz is written, not in blood, but in red ink. There’s one rule in particular that is written in so much ink that it’s bled through the page, and that is: Don’t take used cars to customer homes for test drives. If you look closely, you will see an asterisk to that rule, added by me, and at the bottom of the metaphorical page, I’ve written: * this goes double for Jags.

The history of the Jaguar XJ-S could fill a book, and in fact it’s filled a few books. As the Seventies dawned, it was commonly believed that the sportscar era was about to come to a permanent halt. The affordable race-on-Sunday ragtop was an early casualty of Arab oil prices, American safety regulations, and California emission controls. Jaguar believed that a move upmarket would be required to stay in business (the more things change…) and the XJ-S was created to replace the aging XKE (E-Type to us USians).

Surely fifteen years of depressing, timid, default-retro Jags have taught us to appreciate this automobile for what it is: a unique and stunningly proportioned grand tourer. It was never rapid off the line; until the six-liter XJR-S arrived in the Nineties, it was impossible to push any of the sleek cats to sixty miles per hour in under seven seconds. Top speed, however, was 145 or better in an era when most family sedans on the Continent struggled to break the “ton”.

The original 5.3L V12 was smog-strangled to just over two hundred and forty horsepower in the States, but again, this was in an era where American five-liter V8s often claimed one hundred and twenty horsepower or less. The “HE” revisions debuted in 1981 and significantly increased fuel economy, bumping power by about ten percent as well.

Seventies-era Jaguar twelves are, to put it mildly, nightmares to own. Mechanically, they can be fragile and service access underneath the long bonnet is difficult. There are miles of wiring required simply to make the XJ-S start and run, with some of that wiring located in places seemingly designed to burn or damage it. On a whim, I downloaded a community-generated service manual for the XJ-S off USENET back in 1996 and printed it out; it was over two hundred pages and in many places consisted simply of a friendly word and a few admonitions not to give up in the face of adversity. Do not expect to operate any XJ-S built prior to 1991 as a daily driver. It’s as simple as that.

Naturally, I did not provide the above caveats to the Ohio State adjunct faculty member who arrived on the dealership lot early one Saturday morning to examine our light blue ’83. Even at a somewhat-reasonable $7995, the Jag hadn’t attracted a single “up” in months. This fellow looked like a solid candidate. Not unlike the car in question, Mr. Customer was pallid, sad-looking, and clearly well past his best days despite only being in his early thirties. I fetched the jump-start cart while our incandescently sexy assistant manager distracted the fellow with a coffee and a flip of her skirt. Wonder of wonders, it fired right up and I pulled up for the test drive…

…only to find that the customer had left his driver’s license at home. No tickee, no drive-ee, as they say. Panicked at the prospect of losing the only warm body to ever point a bewalleted derriere at the car’s cracking left front seat, the assistant manager promised that I would bring the car by tomorrow for a private test drive. She then told me that the dealership would pay me a flat spiff of five hundred bucks if I could move the car. Count me in.

I picked up the keys at noon on Sunday and pointed down Route 71 to the not-quite-professor’s home in the precious little suburb of Clintonville. I’d never driven an XJ-S before and was keen to take the ride, actually. First impressions: it was surprisingly like my father’s old ’86 Vanden Plas, but it had even more weight through the steering and drivetrain. As mentioned above, it wasn’t quick, but it also didn’t run out of steam on the freeway the way my VW Fox did. I was well past one-twenty and simply hammering down the left lane, sweeping traffic out of my way with an authoritative flash of the quad headlamps, enjoying the outrageously solid stance and almost complete lack of aerodynamic instability, when all the instrument needles dropped to the pegs and the engine Just. Funking. Quit.

It took me a moment to really believe that I was sailing down the road on inertia; the V-12 was quiet and smooth enough that at triple-digit speeds the relatively low wind noise was still enough to drown out the mechanicals. I slotted the transmission to “N” and started to think. There was an exit perhaps half a mile ahead, so I eased the big coupe through four relatively empty lanes of traffic, gradually falling from one-ten or so down to fifty-ish. A Chevrolet Celebrity “Eurosport” refused to let me merge into the exit lane with it so I had to brush the brakes and kill some of my precious momentum.

I came to a halt perhaps five car lengths from the stoplight at the top of the ramp. For a few long minutes I sat with my head in my hands. I’d killed the car, I would have to be towed back, I would lose my sale and I’d lose my job, and somehow everyone would figure out that I’d just been driving wayyyy too fast. A worn-out brass cat seemed to snarl at me from the key in my hand. With my eyes closed, I reinserted and twisted the key.

There was silence, then a single crank of the starter. The tach jumped. Although I continued on to the precious little home on Fallis Road, I knew that there wouldn’t be any sale. Call it luck, call it grace, call it the entirely understandable scientific operation of Lucas electrics, but whatever you call it, I’d used it up.

Want to take a chance on the beauty in the photos? It’s for sale at Motorcar Portfolio.

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Capsule Review: 1997 Rover Metro http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-1997-rover-metro/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/capsule-review-1997-rover-metro/#comments Mon, 01 Nov 2010 18:22:07 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=371082 No story should ever start, as this one does, with “my First Rover Metro.” The implication that there are more Metros to come is all too obvious, and could probably be best categorized as a “cry for help.” In any case, my first Rover Metro was a teal 1995 1.1L Kensington edition, purchased for £60 […]

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No story should ever start, as this one does, with “my First Rover Metro.” The implication that there are more Metros to come is all too obvious, and could probably be best categorized as a “cry for help.” In any case, my first Rover Metro was a teal 1995 1.1L Kensington edition, purchased for £60 from a friend in Bishop-Stortford. The Kensington edition meant I got shards of carpet over the door panels, and the kind of pizzazz that only an engineer from Coventry would be able to come up with. The Metro lasted only 19 hours in my hands before a brake failure led to its demise into the back of a yellow Hyundai. My second Rover Metro was a 1997 Tahiti Blue 1.1L Ascot edition*, which meant I got full wheel covers and blue piping in the velour. This only accelerated my descent into the world of English motoring, where I found joy and fulfillment in the death rattle of a Rover K-series engine.

*astute readers will recall that both vehicles are technically Rover 100’s, but are always remembered in pop culture as the Metro.

The Austin miniMetro debuted in 1980 as a vehicle “to take on the world” as explained in the television adverts which swelled with British national pride. With an A-series engine from the original Mini, a hydrogas suspension, Applejack Green paint, the miniMetro stood poised for superstardom. Britishconsumers seemed to agree initially, as the first couple years saw records sales. Yet like most things emerging from the behemoth that was British Leyland, the miniMetro ultimately suffered from the “ambitious, but rubbish” mantra pervading everything from Morris to Triumph.

The rust monster ate the front wings, head gaskets failed, and the hydrogas suspensions left miniMetros leaning to one side like a drunken Austin Princesses. Sales fell at alarming rates, and Metros became rolling jokes relegated to the retiree and poor student population. Grafting a Rover badge onto the front, dropping in the new K-series motor, and the “After all, it’s a Rover” campaign failed to bolster the tarnished image. Yet for 17 years, the British kept buying the things. I wish I could fail to understand this pattern of behavior, but I know it all too well, as being American, we bought the equally ambitious but rubbish Cavalier for far longer.

My Metro odyssey really began as my brother and I were left stranded in East Anglia during the ides of fall with a smashed Metro Kensington. We were on our way to a dinner party (or drinking fest, whichever) at the Coach and Horses Pub in Sheffield. Several phone calls to friends and a tow truck ride later, we were on the British Rail system headed north. The next two days in Sheffield became a whirlwind of surreal as me and my British mates decided purchasing a vehicle for less than £500 (or the cost of an airplane ticket to Frankfurt) was really the only solution to my predicament. We surveyed a white Rover 420d, but the blowing exhaust, knackered CV joints, and dodgy Hungarian owner put us off. We quickly ruled out a Proton, really shady BMW 318i, and a really nice Mercedes-Benz E300 owned by Ivy Tyldesly of Coronation Street. The Merc proved doomed when the heater failed to work, a requirement with the European winter approaching.

I nearly gave up hope, until a quick search in the classifieds turned up a 1997 Rover 100 Ascot, for £400, one-owner, 30K miles, and a long MOT and tax. The dealer was even driving it into Sheffield from Doncaster. Knowing when fate slaps you in the face, I couldn’t resist.

As I discovered, the Metro proved much better than my English friends had led me to believe. Acceleration was perfectly adequate, the ride was smooth, the transmission was fine, and the brakes were beyond scary. Hard plastics abounded, gaps were everywhere, yet the plush velour seats were very comfortable, which helped given the most awkward driving position this side of a double decker bus.

Yet shod with Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires, the blue “Metro of Win” became a permanent fixture in the parking lot below the castle of Nurburg, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting Porsches and BMWs, pulling in a very frightening Bridge to Gantry time of around 11 minutes. The Metro took untold dozens of passengers around the Nurburgring at insane speeds of 110mph down hill, and at full suspension compression in nearly every turn, demonstrating the fact that knowledge, not horsepower, wins the day in the Green Hell.

The residents of Nurburg held a moment of silence when rust and electrical gremlins finally claimed its little life. Yet, it lives on, as the engine parts were salvaged to save a stricken mk1 Lotus Elise that broke down.

The Metros are hateful little cars, full of bad design, yet, they come together as whole that so rarely comes to light in the modern era. The Metro is a true metaphor of the culture that built it. Ambitious, but rubbish, but oh what cheap, joyful fun to be had.

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Capsule Review: 2000 Daewoo Leganza http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-2000-daewoo-leganza/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-2000-daewoo-leganza/#comments Sat, 23 Oct 2010 15:12:45 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=369829 Dad! Would you come and check out a car I might want to buy? Sure Will; what is it? A Deawoo Leganza. Oh, Um, Ah, Hm; you’re sure that you might want to buy that? Yeah; it’s got leather, sunroof, and a great sound system. What’s wrong with it? The electric window switches are wackky. […]

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Dad! Would you come and check out a car I might want to buy?

Sure Will; what is it?

A Deawoo Leganza.

Oh, Um, Ah, Hm; you’re sure that you might want to buy that?

Yeah; it’s got leather, sunroof, and a great sound system.

What’s wrong with it?

The electric window switches are wackky. I don’t care.

Are you sure that’s all?

I’m prepared for the worst. The Daewoo name carries some heavy baggage, and is often assumed to have been a failed brand because of its disappearance so soon after it arrived in the US. But that was the result of GM buying Daewoo, and forcing a shutdown of the US distributor by cutting off their supply. But in Daewoo’s brief day in the sun, the Leganza was the top of the line. And this is a loaded CDX version: 4 wheel discs, 16″ alloys, traction and ABS, sunroof, leather, the works. And that many more wires to get crossed up.

It’s showing 138,000 miles on the odometer and a few minor dings and scratches; this was a hand-me down to one of his high school friends, a girl thankfully. It’s been sitting for months, as the owner has graduated to a VW Cabrio, natch. But the Holden-built 131 hp 2.2 L D-TEC II four, one of the many variants of the GM Family II, starts right up with a purr. The genuine made-in-Japan Aisin four-speed automatic shifts crisply into gear, and off we go, rubbing the surface rust off the squeaky discs.

The engine has good response, and decent low-mid speed power, but is no Honda in sound or its top end. The transmission shifts like new, better than our similarly-old Forester. We head out into the country, and after a couple of short full-throttle blasts to 85 or so, nothing has blown up, vibrated or complained. Performance is mission-appropriate for an eighteen year old. The drive-train gets a pass.

The suspension and body integrity is better than I was prepared for. It feels surprisingly tight and un-worn out. This is not a particularly cushy or quiet car, but neither is it harsh or overly cheap feeling. The Leganza was marketed as an affordable “executive class” car in places like Eastern Europe at the time. The front is quite roomy; my easily cramped 6’4″ body felt quite at home, and even the headroom was true to its name, despite the sunroof. I didn’t bother to get in the back; sorry.

Handling also surpassed my low expectations; nothing inspiring, but harmless and moderately competent. The steering was reasonably crisp, with decent communication, and not over-boosted, like too many electric units these days. The Leganza is quite neutral in curves, and is not afraid of them, if not exactly on the prowl. Once again, mission appropriate.

The seats felt rather flat and firm, but I wasn’t in it long enough to tell whether that is a good or bad thing. The seating surfaces would need to be sent to a lab to confirm it really being leather. On the other hand, it doesn’t look worn out either. The interior material quality is actually quite good: with a few minor exceptions, it’s totally covered in genuine old-school padded vinyl; a reasonably credible imitation of the “fat” V30 Camry from the  early nineties. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that Daewoo had that car in its visor when it developed the Leganza. For a kid who always wanted a Lexus LS400 for his first car, this is actually an appropriate (and quite acceptable, to him) substitute. Times change, tastes change.

Although the Daewoo is no Lexus, there is a connection. The Leganza was styled by no less than the by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Ital Design, and heavily based on his Jaguar Kensington concept (above), a design he also recycled into the Toyota Aristo/Lexus GS 300 (first generation). Maybe something got lost in the translation; now it’s forgettable and invisible: once again, mission appropriate.

What else is there to consider in a short drive? The brakes still work; good enough. As does the sunroof, automatic climate control, cruise and electric seats. The only flaw: the electric window controls. Sometimes they work, sometimes only when the door is open; other times, it sets all the door lockers in a nervous spasm. Anybody have any suggestions?

We return, and I let him negotiate a price: $500. It’s the other extreme of the depreciation scale, the one to be on when buying. The original sticker folded in the glove box reads $19+k. Not likely someone actually paid that, but still…

“We’ll be right back; there’s an ATM a couple of blocks away”.

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Capsule Review: 1994 Toyota Truck And The Incompetent Insurance Fraudsters http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-1994-toyota-truck-and-the-incompetent-insurance-fraudsters/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-1994-toyota-truck-and-the-incompetent-insurance-fraudsters/#comments Wed, 20 Oct 2010 14:25:04 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=369449 I’m no attorney, but I’ve read articles posted anonymously on the Internet by people who claim to be attorneys, and therefore I feel confident that my extensive research regarding the statute of limitations for insurance fraud in certain Midwestern states is correct. It’s time to tell a story of minitrucks and maxipayments, of bumbling crime […]

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I’m no attorney, but I’ve read articles posted anonymously on the Internet by people who claim to be attorneys, and therefore I feel confident that my extensive research regarding the statute of limitations for insurance fraud in certain Midwestern states is correct. It’s time to tell a story of minitrucks and maxipayments, of bumbling crime and hilariously apt punishment…

Much of my youth was spent in the passenger seat of a Toyota pickup. Many of my BMX pals left the sport due to age, injuries, or plain disenchantment and became minitruckers. While there were theoretically many minis on the market, from the Chevrolet S-10 to the GMC S-15, only the Toyota trucks had any real cachet among the hardest of the hardcore.

When I think about what a Toyota truck cost back then, and what you could expect to get out of it, my eyes get a little soggy. Note, by the way, that under no God-damned circumstances will I refer to these vehicles as the “Hilux”. I leave that for people who watch Top Gear. Here in the United States of America, these vehicles were sold simply as the Toyota Truck, except for the one-ton variant, which bore the stirring name of Toyota One Ton. Plain and simple. You can Hilux that right up your you-know-what.

Back to pricing. In 1989, one of my pals, whom we shall call “Jim”, bought a three-year-old, 20,000-mile, standard-bed four-speed for… wait for it… forty-six hundred dollars. I would buy ten of them today at that price. This was a basic vehicle, mind you. It had the so-called “Japanese” bed, the tailgate of which had two latches, one on each side. They worked by squeezing the very flexible sides of the bed together. Here’s a photo of a 1979 to show you what I mean:

They were single-wall beds and could be permanently dented by leaning against them. I found this out when I dented Jim’s truck by leaning against it. Oops.

Jim “tricked out” the truck by filling it full of stereo equipment and dropping it to the ground on “lowering blocks”. The lowering block is the most terrifying piece of engineering I’ve ever seen. It’s a block you put between the axle and the leaf spring. Torsional-slash-cornering loads? Handled with a U-bolt. The front end was lowered by uncranking the torsion rods. Later on, the truck was painted yellow and a set of Fittipaldi “5-star” wheels found their way onto the thing. Among Toyota minitruckers, it was considered awesome.

Jim got a better job and traded in his used Toyota for a new one. He tricked that one out too, with ten grand in upgrades. Then he realized that he hated his new job, so he quit. When the next set of truck and credit-card payments came, he realized that was a bad idea. Enter Clevon.

Clevon lived in the projects north of downtown Columbus. How Jim met him I’ll never know, but I do know that, after hearing Jim’s tale of truck-related woe, Clevon came up with a ready solution. He would “steal” the truck out of Jim’s driveway using a spare set of keys, strip the stereo equipment for sale, then roll it down a hill into a local river.

Jim didn’t want to break the law, but he also didn’t want to have the truck repossessed, so the deal was struck. That night, the truck disappeared. The very next day, the police called Jim.

“Sir, we have found your truck.”

“Oh, really? Is it… damaged beyond repair?” Apparently, it was all Jim could do not to immediately mention water damage. He wasn’t exactly Thomas Crown, if you know what I mean.

“Well, the dashboard has been ripped out, and there isn’t a single thing of value left in it, but once you get the tree out of the suspension, it should fix up.”

“Did you say… tree?” Upon hearing of this, I rode my bicycle twenty miles to Clevon’s apartment to hear the full story. Return with me, dear reader, to a fall night in the early Nineties. Clevon has stripped-out and trashed the truck to the best of his ability. He has positioned himself and the vehicle at the top of a long grass hill. At the bottom of that hill is a river. Now, as the mother of his child waits in her Cavalier with the motor running, Clevon puts the Toyota in neutral and starts running down the hill with the door open, pushing it along, before tripping and falling out of the way. The truck bounces down the hill… and makes a ninety-degree left turn into a tree. A more intrepid fraudster would have figured out a way to get the truck out of the tree and into the water, but Clevon was not such a man. He was in the Cavalier and down the road before the radiator stopped hissing.

“Why didn’t you lock the steering?” I asked.

“Why didn’t your momma put you in a dumpster?” was the response.

“A slavish devotion to middle-class mores.”

The next day, I watched a towing company winch the truck down into Jim’s driveway. His insurance policy entitled him to eighty percent of the lowest possible bid for repairing the vehicle. His stereo equipment and upgrades were not covered. A brief interview with Clevon regarding the return of said stuff, or at least distribution of proceeds from the sale, did not go the way Jim had hoped.

Faced with this situation, our unlucky fraudster did what he had to do. He went and asked for his crummy job back. He fixed the truck himself, using the cheapest available parts. Somehow, he ended up putting the fenders, hood, and grille from a four-wheel-drive Toyota on his two-wheel-drive Toyota. It started a bit of a national trend. To this day, Toyota minitruckers still consider a “4×4 conversion” to be a must-have for any serious “whip”.

Over the course of a decade, Jim revised and rebuilt the Toyota again and again. By the time he was done, it had obtained what John Updike calls “minor fame” in the minitrucking world. The bed went up, down, and around on hydraulic arms. There were three show-quality paintjobs, all different colors, stacked on top of the crappy original collision repaint. The interior was finished to a standard that would shame a Bentley Continental. The engine bay was completely chromed and/or polished. He devoted a room in his new tract home to minitrucking trophies and framed magazine articles.

I stopped by one day to find a 1963 Chevrolet in his garage. Somebody had walked up to him at a truck show and offered serious money. He had taken the serious money and signed the title over on the spot.

“You know,” he said, “I spent ten years of my life thinking about nothing but that truck, devoting my time and effort to it, spending every weekend with it.” There was a pause.

“I’m so glad it’s gone.”

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Capsule Review: 1995 Probe SE and the Foxy Stone http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-1995-probe-se-and-the-foxy-stone/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-1995-probe-se-and-the-foxy-stone/#comments Tue, 19 Oct 2010 14:00:32 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=369315 Count on Rodney to ruin a fine romance. “I just thought you should know,” he said as I opened up the lockbox to find the keys for our only four-cylinder, five-speed Probe, “that I screwed your up.” “You screwed me up?” It wouldn’t be the first time; he’d recently driven a new Taurus headfirst into […]

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Count on Rodney to ruin a fine romance. “I just thought you should know,” he said as I opened up the lockbox to find the keys for our only four-cylinder, five-speed Probe, “that I screwed your up.”

“You screwed me up?” It wouldn’t be the first time; he’d recently driven a new Taurus headfirst into our “JBL: The Sound Of Ford” display while trying to manuever it out of the showroom, approximately four hours before I was scheduled to deliver it to its new owner.

“No, I screwed your up. The girl sitting at your desk. With the hairy forearms.” Come to think of it, her forearms did have a fair amount of remarkably dark hair on them. “She still thinks my name is Cleveland Washington or something like that. We hit it off right in the club bathroom, like I am known to do.” And yes, indeed, Rodney was rather infamous for anonymous tile-surrounded sex. There were five waitresses who worked the late shift at our local Waffle House. Rodney had violated two of them on the women’s sink over the past year and was working a third with all the patience of a champion bass fisherman. “You know what it means when a girl has hairy forearms.”

“I really don’t.” So he told me. Well, I should have realized that.

The second-generation Probe was probably the best car to come out of the long, difficult Ford-Mazda relationship. In six-cylinder GT form, it was almost ridiculously satisfying to drive, combining tasteful styling, solid interior design, and a lovely snorting sound from the small-bore V6. Even today, one will occasionally see a Probe GT take an SCCA regional autocross win. Good car.

One problem: it was not an easy car to insure. Not only were they stolen at a rate that occasionally exceeded the daily production of Probes at Flat Rock’s AutoAlliance plant, the GT was quick enough to make a big mess when it crashed. Somebody at Ford had the brilliant idea of making a four-cylinder Probe that looked like a six-cylinder one, and the Probe SE was born. We sold them for about fifteen grand, when we could get them. It was a great car to drive, and although it was no Probe GT, it was considerably more stylish than, say, the Escort GT sitting next to it on the lot for $13,100.

We didn’t actually have a Probe SE on the lot, but our locator program said there was a blue one about 100 miles north of us and that it was a “friendly” dealer. Smaller dealerships like ours were usually willing trade partners; the three large Columbus, Ohio dealerships almost never honored a request. Why should they? If you’re “floorplanning” a thousand Fords on your lot, why make your inventory available to the shop with fifty-five cars in stock?

Our general manager, Glenn, was out, so his underling, Tony, was eager to make a deal. There were no real obstacles. The girl was an “A Plan” customer, meaning she paid the employee rate thanks to a father who worked at a Ford plant. She wanted a blue one, and that was the one we could get. Off we went to the finance office. Did I mention that this young woman, despite being rather hairy of appendage, was classically beautiful in a very Armenian fashion? She was so good-looking I had trouble speaking around her, and she made a point of mentioning that she was single.

“You know,” Rodney whispered in my ear while the F&I guy did his magic, “that if you go d…” Here, dear readers, he conjured up what we could call a “chain of custody” involving the order in which his, hers, and my body parts might have interacted and might potentially interact, with the end result being the implication that I would, by proxy, be retroactively servicing him. It is a measure of the customer’s mind-bending good looks that I was not entirely deterred by this.

Thirty minutes later she was out of F&I. “How’d it go?” I inquired of our finance guy.

“Total stone.” This was dealership argot for “credit criminal who wouldn’t qualify for a prepaid MasterCard.”

“Oh.”

“Not a problem. Dad called in and signed. All done.” And with that, I delightedly shook my new customer’s hand, looking deeply into her eyes so as not to notice her arms.

Three days later, it was delivery day. I’d worn my better shoes for this one and ironed my pants. The appointed time arrived, as did she… without Dad. Tearfully, she told me that she and her father had been through some personal problems. He had evicted her from his trailer (!!) and was refusing to sign. But she badly wanted the car… so badly! What could I do?

Well, dear readers, I could do nothing. Over the next six hours, our F&I guy called in every favor known to man. Meanwhile, the general manager called me into his office.

“If that car doesn’t leave tonight, don’t come in tomorrow. You let your (worse instincts) lead your head around.” Nine o’clock came and went as the phone rang back with denials. Finally, around ten thirty at night, a West Coast lender called in. The deal was structured in a manner I still don’t understand to this day. I lost my commission, the girl bought a six-year extended warranty, her payments went from $310 a month to $459. The initial disclosure of that payment caused her to run out of the dealership crying, but she was eventually coerced back in to sign the papers.

And all that remained was to get her father, who would not sign any loan documents, to at least sign the “A Plan” authorization. Three weeks later, my wife and I used my “day off” to drive my F-150 demo two and a half hours into the deep Ohio wilderness. Back we went, off the paved roads, to a gravel track and up a steep hill. I was in mild fear for my personal safety as I knocked lightly on the crooked door.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” A gruff man’s voice.

“Ah, Sir,” I said, every syllable coming out sounding more and more like the prissy doctoral student I desperately wanted to in no way resemble at this particular moment, “I have this document…”

“GIVE IT HERE!” The door cracked open and a tattooed arm snaked out. There was a pause, a scratching noise, and it was shoved back out at me, with the “PIN code” filled out and, amazingly, an “X” on the signature line. It took me a terrified moment to realize that Dad had made his mark, so to speak. He was illiterate. But how did the numbers get there? “TAKE IT AN’ GIT OUT!” I heard giggling, low, sexy. It had to be the daughter… then I heard the man laugh. Oh boy.

By the time I reached the door of my truck, it was plain that the two occupants of the trailer were having noisy, extremely satisfying sexual intercourse. “Why are you smiling?” my wife asked as I fired up the straight-six and reached into the cupholder.

“Imagine that these two Coke bottles are anatomically correct dolls,” I said to her, “and I’m going to explain what Rodney, in a sense, has had in his mouth.”

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Capsule Review: 2007 Ford Focus ZX4 ST “Spec Focus” http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-2007-ford-focus-zx4-st-spec-focus/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-2007-ford-focus-zx4-st-spec-focus/#comments Mon, 18 Oct 2010 02:49:31 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=369148 TTAC tested the street version of this car a few years ago: check it out for a classic example of mid-RF-era TTAC reviews, complete with withering attention to interior-quality issues and not-so-gentle comments regarding the unwillingness of the average automaker to purchase a Ford. At the time, the Focus sold for about fifteen grand. That […]

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TTAC tested the street version of this car a few years ago: check it out for a classic example of mid-RF-era TTAC reviews, complete with withering attention to interior-quality issues and not-so-gentle comments regarding the unwillingness of the average automaker to purchase a Ford.

At the time, the Focus sold for about fifteen grand. That was for the street car. How much does a racing Focus cost? The answer: One dollar. The answer is also $2500. And $6000. And $25,000. Confused yet?

The success of the Spec Miata racing class, both in the eager-to-embrace-it NASA and hideously-reluctant SCCA, was a pointed lesson to manufacturers struggling to build enthusiast bases for their cheap-and-cheerful cars. A few more spec street-car classes were spontaneously spawned from owner interest: the SE-R Cup, Spec Neon, and Spec E30 (BMW) classes all managed to get off the ground and running with little or no manufacturer help.

The Spec Focus class, on the other hand, was a deliberate creation of a few well-known Ford engineers and marketroids. A couple of so-called “dollar cars” were signed over to Leo Capaldi Racing, which had previously campaigned a Focus in Speed World Challenge competition. “Dollar cars” are cars which cannot be sold to the public for some reason. Normally they are crushed; VW, for instance, crushed the Phaetons by its reps to travel the country and train mechanics on Phaeton service. They might as well have crushed it before sending it out, if the quality of Phaeton service I received is any indication of said training program, but I digress.

Capaldi built the cars to a very high standard, finishing the cage and preparation almost to a Grand-Am Cup level — which, as we will later see, wasn’t the greatest idea. The coin-operated people at NASA were easily persuaded to carve out a separate class for the three Foci to race, and thus Spec Focus was born.

Ford engineers did a lot of homework to ensure that the four major Focus variants — 2.0 Zetec, 2.0 Zetec SVT, 2.0 Duratec, and 2.3 Duratec — would all produce about the same power with the permitted parts. A rather modest National Championship was held in 2006 among the rental cars, with a Ford SVT engineer thrown in to make sure there were enough competitors to round out a podium.

In 2007, two private competitors built their own Spec Foci and all of a sudden it was a five-car class. I joined Spec Focus as a renter, paying between $2500 and $3500 a weekend to drive the red ZX4 sedan. It was a complete arrive-and-drive program for me; I just showed up, paid, and was given a well-prepared car. When necessarily, Capaldi himself suited up to give me some competition. Just watching him race was worth the money; a lifetime racing in murderous Detroit kart classes and Speed WC had taught him every trick in the book and then some.

With Capaldi’s guidance and coaching from a variety of reasonably distinguished fellows, I obliterated the lap records set by the 2006 champion and prepared to cruise to a nearly uncontested 2007 National Championship. The private cars weren’t even close to Capaldi’s rent-a-racers; at one Mid-Ohio race I ran a 1:45.6 while the fastest private car ran 1:51. To put this in perspective, a reasonably-skilled “HPDE 3″ driver in a completely stock 911 GT3 or Corvette Z06 might expect to run a 1:43. These weren’t slow cars; although they only made 170hp or so at the wheels, grippy Toyo RA-1 tires and high-quality Multimatic suspension made them quick in the turns.

What’s a Focus race car like to drive? Well, it likes to roll:

My driving style was different from everyone else’s in the class; I have a particular touch for loading up an outside sidewall and I ended up deflating a tire during a race from bead separation under conditions worse than pictured above. (As a result, Ford changed the tire spec for 2008.) This was not a car for the faint of heart or stomach to race; although the handling was very safe, there was a lot of motion in the car. On the plus side, it had ABS, which absolves a multitude of driving sins.

Most importantly, however, a Spec Focus is a race car. That means: no interior trim anywhere, very loud inside, no rubber or slop in the bushings, full cage, deep seat, limited visibility. It actually feels a lot more like a conventional racer than a Spec Miata, which is not as obviously transformed in its journey from street car to race car.

During the 2007 National Championship itself I made a mistake going into the first turn, dropping into third place, and then kicked another driver into the dirt making up the time. Although I set fast lap of the race, I was demoted down to the third step of the podium in the disciplinary session afterwards. Including damages, entry fees, and incidentals, that was a $6000 weekend. Had I totaled the car, I would have had to write Leo a $25,000 check. When people asked me why I raced an economy car, I always replied,

“Because it’s only slightly more expensive than leasing a Murcielago.”

Despite the obvious merits of the cars, private racers have been slow in coming. I suspect it’s because racing against a fully-prepared team like Capaldi Racing is tough enough for other pro teams. For a guy with an open-deck trailer and a $300 Craftsman toolset, it’s even tougher. No private Spec Focus racer has experienced significant success.

My experience as a rent-a-driver convinced me that I could run my own team, and I was more or less correct. The Neon I built for a total of $9500 the next year was slightly faster than Capaldi’s Focus rentals and far ahead of the private Foci. I had the satisfaction of lapping one of my most outspoken critics in the Focus community during a 2008 race. Later on in the season, one of the Spec Focus drivers and I came together in a collision that totaled my Neon and put the other driver on the Life Flight, but that’s a story for another time. Eighteen months later, everybody’s friends. Things happen in racing. It isn’t World of Warcraft; temper can cost lives.

Capaldi Racing can still put you behind the wheel of a Spec Focus; click for details. The class hasn’t had a lot of subscription in 2010, but it’s a solid way to get started in your race career. The conventional wisdom is that it’s better to start in a large class like Spec Miata, but I found that having a relatively small number of in-class cars at every race allowed me to, ah, focus on getting my personal act together as a driver and racer. It might be the right choice for you, as well.

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Capsule Review: 1993 Mazda RX-7 and The Finest In Men’s… http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-1993-mazda-rx-7-and-the-finest-in-mens/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/capsule-review-1993-mazda-rx-7-and-the-finest-in-mens/#comments Thu, 07 Oct 2010 13:30:43 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=367807 More than a few of you had a simple question (or statement) regarding my Infiniti G20 Capsule Review, namely, “Why didn’t you check the mileage of the dealer trade?” The answer is simple: I wasn’t even permitted to call other dealerships, much less arrange trades. At that particular shop, salespeople weren’t even permitted to see […]

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More than a few of you had a simple question (or statement) regarding my Infiniti G20 Capsule Review, namely,

“Why didn’t you check the mileage of the dealer trade?”

The answer is simple: I wasn’t even permitted to call other dealerships, much less arrange trades. At that particular shop, salespeople weren’t even permitted to see the final numbers at deals. We were intended to be “product specialists”, not wheeler-dealers.

In fact, our rather idealistic general manager believed in specifically hiring people with no experience in the industry. His boss, the dealer group manager, had deep roots in the buy-here-pay-here biz. The conflict between these two philosophies occasionally led to trouble…

“AND ANOTHER THING,” the group manager boomed in our monthly meeting. “NOBODY, AND I MEAN NOBODY, DRIVES THAT F***ING MAZDA RX-7 WITHOUT MY APPROVAL. YOU F***ING CALL ME IF YOU HAVE AN UP ON IT!!!! NOBODY DRIVES IT!!! YOU IDIOTS WILL WRECK IT!!!” What was he talking about? I was always half-asleep on Saturday mornings. We had an RX-7? I walked out to the lot afterwards and sure enough, it was up on a metal display ramp: a 1993 RX-7 Twin Turbo, dark green, 8,900 miles.

Where did it come from? Nobody seemed to know. The other salespeople gathered around the car. We were: two recent liberal arts graduates, one middle-aged former trophy wife and one twentysomething current trophy wife who would later on both become representatives for the local upscale homebuilder, a former yacht salesman, and a trim, impeccably preppy African-American fellow who had just arrived from the only Brioni retailer in Columbus, Ohio. The group manager hated our guts and loved screaming at us about how we were suburban candy-assed homosexuals.

Everything we did was wrong in this dude’s opinion, so he prevented us from doing anything. We weren’t permitted to truly work deals. We were not allowed to quote any price to the customer but MSRP. We couldn’t make dealer trades, we couldn’t even book cars into the detailing shop without manager approval. The store had two sales managers, a general manager, and this “group manager” who worked in Louisville but made a monthly trip up Route 71 to scream at us. They “did the work”. We were expected to be like the shoji screens around the cars: upper-middle-class set dressing.

I was ambivalent about the job, to put it mildly, so the moment I saw this RX-7 I started out figuring out how I was going to get behind the wheel. In terms of raw acceleration, it would be the fastest car I’d yet driven, not that much slower in the quarter-mile than my tired old Ninja 600R. It was sexy. Years later, Jeremy Clarkson would call it the “Japanese E-Type”, and that’s a fair description.

After some thought, I decided on the simplest approach. Since everybody knew that death and fury awaited anyone who drove the car without permission, it followed naturally that anybody seen taking the car off the rack would be assumed to have permission. I therefore went back to the key box, grabbed the appropriate tag, and ten minutes later I was beeping the horn at my house as my seventeen-year-old brother ran out the door towards me.

“Dude,” I said, “let’s thrash this bitch”. For half an hour, we zipped around our square-mile subdivision like crazy men. I floored the throttle and the brake on entry to each corner, as I had read was the practice of the late great Mark Donohue, and exited each one sideways and smoking. Sure, we were doing fifty miles per hour at the most, but it was awesome fun. Then my brother had an idea.

“I should drive.”

“Why not?” I replied. After all, he had six months’ of experience driving a 1993 Jetta. After a few false starts and one very slow-speed bump up a rounded-off curb, he had the hang of it and was going crazy. We were looking at somebody’s lawn through the windshield, totally crossed-up, the tach bouncing wildly around, beeping, buzzing, when BANG! something went wrong. The Mazda coasted to a halt, smoking.

“That’s gotta be bad,” he said. We swapped places and I started the car. It ran, but it was slower than my 1990 Fox and it was smoking copiously. I dropped him off and considered my options. Nobody had actually seen me take the car off the rack. It was possible that nobody would see me put it back on. It was even more possible that nobody would see me pull it into the detail shop. I called Chauncey over.

“Hey man, a bird shit all over this thing.” Chauncey looked at it.

“Where?”

“How should I know? Group manager says clean it, I didn’t look.” That was enough for Chauncey, who cleaned an already clean car and drove it slowly up the ramp. If anybody saw him doing it, they didn’t seem to care. We were not encouraged to take an interest in the operation of the dealership.

I walked up to the front desk in what I believed to be an extremely nonchalant fashion. Our new salesperson was industriously composing a letter to be sent to his contact list of over 600 Columbus bigwigs. He’d created this list one whale at a time as he humbly measured our city’s bankers, judges, and newspaper owners for their 52S three-pieces. It was a killer contact list, believe me. Not a single five-figure loser on it. He walked away to answer the call of nature and I looked at the screen.

Dear [NAME],

My name is (blah blah) and I have recently left (name of clothing shop) to work at (name of Infiniti dealer). As you are aware, I have been associated with the finest in men’s clothing for over a decade and have now chosen to bring my unique perspective to the world of luxury automobiles….

Quick as thought, I replaced “clothing” with “pimping” and stood back to admire my handiwork. Wait ’till he saw this! This was so good, I decided to retreat to a nearby couch and watch as he walked up, scanned the letter…

…and hit PRINT. Six hundred letters, all on creamy paper stock chosen for the occasion, started to roll off the printer. Well, to misquote Harry Chapin, another man might have been sorry, and another man might have been regretful, but another man wouldn’t have replaced “clothing” with “pimping”. I hopped on my Ninja and went out for the second lunch of the day.

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