The Truth About Cars » Future Writers The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:25:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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 (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 » Future Writers Night Flight Of The Silver Ghost. An On Request Future Writer Story Mon, 25 Feb 2013 06:00:28 +0000

Some claimed yesterday that David Hester’s views of a government-issued Panther are more desired than his discussion of D.I.Y. engine mods. You ask for it, you get it today. How’s that for service? Also, be judicious with your comments about his prose. David may be a rookie writer, but he’s a seasoned cop, and he knows where to find you. In any case, I’ve seen a few police reports in the past, and Dave’s way with words definitely beats them all.

My cellphone begins to bleat a mere three hours after my head hit the pillow. I shake the cobwebs from my head and listen to an excitable 3rd shift sergeant inform me of a criminal act requiring the immediate attention of the Special Victims Section detective, yes, pronto, never mind the pre-dawn hours. Quick shave. Quick shower. Quick peck on the cheek of my sleeping wife. Then out into the cold for the forty minute drive from my home into the sleeping city.

My G-ride awaits, a 2007 Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptor in “Official Government Business” silver. My department assigns each officer a home-fleet vehicle and I’ve been driving this one for a little over 40,000 of its 89,000 miles. One of the last of the real Police Interceptors, it boasts the civilian interior upgrade, with mouse-fur covered cloth bench seats instead of vinyl, carpeting instead of vomit resistant rubber, and a CD player. However, in a surprise outbreak of fiscal prudence, whoever ordered the cars that year failed to check the box for the exterior upgrades, like chrome trim. It’s the best of both worlds: soft semi-luxury inside with the blacked out “move to the right” front grill.

It takes about 10 minutes to reach I-75 from my driveway. I accelerate down the entrance ramp onto the empty interstate and settle into the left lane at… a reasonable and prudent speed. The big Ford loafs, eating up the miles without drama, solid as the day it rolled off of the assembly line. The only other vehicles I pass are 18 wheelers, their drivers probably wired to the gills on coffee, No-Doz, maybe meth. All of them are on high alert, scanning the road ahead and behind for the Crown Vic’s distinctive headlight pattern in their mirrors. Tonight their vigilance is rewarded: there is a Bear out there and I spy more than a few quick flashes of brake lights, even though none of them are in my lane and I subsequently couldn’t care less about the lies in their log books.

As I approach the bridge that crosses the river separating my quiet, rural home county from the urban jungle I work in, traffic is picking up a little bit. Not much, but there’s four-wheeled traffic mixed in with the truck traffic, and as I cross the bridge I can see a few lingering in the leftmost lane. The police radio goes on as I enter my jurisdiction and I start the light show a few seconds later.

The disco lights do the job. The left lane bandits are shaken out of their trances and slide into the center or rightmost lane well before I arrive. There’s no need for the vulgarity of the siren, which would interrupt Sinatra’s request for one more for his baby and one more for the road. I reach my exit and the lights go off, rendering me all but invisible to the traffic rolling on beyond. The city is beginning to stir, with lights coming on as shop owners prepare for the first customers. Joggers are out, as are paper delivery… men. I don’t suppose there have actually been paper delivery boys for decades.

I pull up at the emergency room and park in the ambulance bay. There will be at least an hour of waiting until the victim is cleared by the doctors, followed by another hour of interviews. Sometimes the case will be legitimate. Those are draining, especially if it involves a child. More often the case will be a case of regret, an attempt to cover up infidelity, or even a dispute over prostitution services rendered. Those cases will be unfounded, pended and forgotten in short order, sometimes with false report charges against the “victim,” but usually not. I suppose that’s for the best. A city in which every rape report was legitimate would be a horribly dangerous place to live.

The sun is up by the time I finish the interviews, and I roll on into the office to get an early jump on my shift. The day will drag by. Maybe there will be a suspect to find in regards to the new case, maybe not. By the time the day is over, the paperwork, at least, will be in order. I’ll mount back up and drive back across the river, feeling the weight of the case and the responsibility of the job disappear as the Crown Vic’s wheels thump across the last expansion joint. Dinner awaits, perhaps a beer or two, and then a good night’s sleep. It will be another twelve days until I have to cover the on-call schedule for the unit again.

Another twelve days before another night flight.

David Hester is a detective with the Lexington, KY Police Department by day and night. He drove a Crown Vic for work, but “does not suffer from an overabundance of Panther love.” David is a Editor’s Choice Future TTAC Writer, just in case we ever drive through Lexington, KY.

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The Airbox Of Lies. A Future Writer Story Sat, 23 Feb 2013 14:05:20 +0000

10 horses more, promise

It began as most projects do: with the triumph of Hope over Experience. I have a 2002 Camaro SS. One of the easier modifications is the installation of an aftermarket airbox lid from SLP. It has a smooth interior that reduces turbulence and shoves more air into the engine, resulting in more power and noise, or so it says. The SLP also comes with a cool K&N sticker, hence it must be good for at least 10 extra horses.

SLP’s website promised a “15 minute” installation time. I knew that was nonsense. I figured it would take an hour. What follows is a blow- by- blow account of how Hope snuck up behind Experience and slugged him with a sock full of nickels.

Typical 15 minute job

12:50 PM: I take the Camaro for a shakedown run so that I can make an accurate “seat o’ the pants” comparison later and get to work. SLP’s 15 minute installation time goes out the window when I spend 10 minutes looking for my ratcheting box end wrench to loosen the battery’s negative terminal before giving up and breaking out my socket wrench set. Still, the rest of the teardown goes easily enough. Soon I’m left with the air intake duct resonator which has the Mass Air Flow sensor (MAF) attached to the rear and the intake air temperature (IAT) sensor mounted slightly above it. Both of these parts have to be reused on the SLP lid. I grab the MAF with one hand, the resonator with the other, and pull. Nothing happens.

1:35 PM: Ten minutes of brute strength accomplishes nothing. Time to work smarter, not harder. Give me a lever and a place to stand and I shall remove my MAF from my restrictive factory resonator… provided I can work a screw driver between them. I can’t. I grab a hammer, but hesitate. One of the original grease pencil slashes from the final assembly line inspection stares back at me. I can probably hit the plastic resonator gently enough to free the MAF without damaging it, but should I? Contemplation is required, as is hydration. Have I really been out here for almost an hour?

2:10 PM: My break is over, as are another 15 minutes of the futile application of brute strength and profanity. Enough sentimentality. I grab the MAF with my left hand and swing the hammer. Two blows and the resonator falls to the floor.

2:15 PM: The IAT sensor is held by a rubber grommet. I pull on it. Nothing happens. I retrieve the screwdriver and start to work the grommet through from the inside. One slip and- sonofaBITCH!- I stab myself in the palm of my left hand. Back in the house for antiseptic. How long has it been since I got a tetanus shot?

2:30 PM: I go back to working the grommet carefully with the screwdriver. It finally pops free. I pick up the MAF sensor assembly and try to push it into the SLP lid. Nothing happens.

2:45 PM: SLP can’t be serious. The diameter of the airlid’s neck is three millimeters smaller than the circumference of the MAF. Brute force and profanity are even more useless than they were when I was trying to get the damn thing off. The instructions suggest using a hairdryer to heat the plastic up in order to make the assembly process easier. I go inside to get hers. My wife looks at me askance and asks how much longer I’m going to be in the garage.

3:30 PM: I sit on the floor of the garage, seething at the two lumps of evil that have mocked my attempts to mate them for the last hour. I have heated up the infernal plastic airlid multiple times to no discernible effect. Each time nothing. I hate MAF sensors, my Camaro, and the jack wagon who decided to advertise this tour of Hell as a 15 minute install.

3:35 PM: The neck is simply too small. I retrieve my rotary tool, warranty be damned. This project must be completed or let no man come back alive. Plastic dust fills the air. Maybe I can apply for black lung benefits.

3:55 PM: Several turns of polishing with the rotary tool, followed by obsessive- compulsive wiping of the inside of the lid to eliminate any stray bits of plastic, and the edge of the MAF barely fits. I heat up the plastic for 10 minutes before I start to shove it home. It starts in, but I put too much pressure on one side and it suddenly slips in too deep. Somehow I have managed to cross- thread the MAF into the airlid.

4:05 PM: Once again the right tool for the job turns out to be a hammer. The problem is that this time I will have to strike the MAF assembly itself instead of the plastic airlid. I find my rubber mallet. One swing knocks the pieces loose. I line up the MAF with the airlid and drive it into the neck as carefully as I can. When I finish the MAF is rotated about 90 degrees from being centered correctly at the top of the airlid so that I can plug it back in and it won’t turn by hand. I persuade it with the mallet while accusing it of the vilest forms of incest. It turns about three degrees with every blow. Eventually I have it straight enough for government work.

4:15 PM: Finally, the installation proceeds without much further delay, although just buttoning everything up takes longer than the advertised 15 minutes. How many times can you hit a MAF sensor assembly before it starts throwing codes? At least one more time than I did, because everything works with no idiot lights flashing on the dash.

Sounds more powerful

Time for a test drive. SLP claims a gain of 10 RWHP with the lid. It passes the seat o’ the pants test, for whatever that’s worth. What is definitely noticeable is the noise. I nail the throttle and the LS1 roars. I wasn’t expecting such a change in tone without an exhaust swap, but there’s no denying it. It just sounds meaner.

I feel a wide grin creeping across my face. That’s why I bought this car: It can make me smile. I’m already forgetting the frustrations of the last three hours, the way a mother forgets her labor pains when she holds her firstborn child. I pull into my driveway with a single thought coursing through my brain:

“I better bring that hairdryer back… ”

David Hester is a detective with the Lexington, KY Police Department by day and night. He drove a Crown Vic for work, but “does not suffer from an overabundance of Panther love.” David is a Editor’s Choice Future TTAC Writer, just in case we ever driver through Lexington, KY.

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Review: Rental Legacy, By Subaru. A Future Writer Story Sun, 17 Feb 2013 12:33:31 +0000

It’s double feature Sunday: Can TTAC’s Future Writers master the tough job of a car review? During Future Writers Week, you chose the writers you want to see again on TTAC. Here is today’s second Future Writer car review. Do you like it? Do tell.

Sometimes the demographic stereotypes for particular car buyers exist for a reason. Being a current legal student that first graduated from that big Colorado university in the People’s Republic of Boulder and will almost certainly become the basic “yuppie”, Subarus have held some appeal to me. The idea of a rugged, capable, different family sedan has piqued my interest for awhile; I nearly purchased a used Subaru several years back, settling on a Volvo when I decided that the comfortable box would be a far greater companion on cross-country drives than the quirky, boxer-engined Subie. However, much of the automotive industry has been on a course of bland convergence since the late-nineties production of both of those vehicles; for Volvos that has meant the demise of the canal-boat-esque 5 cylinder sans turbo found in my old S70, but what does it mean for the Subaru Legacy? Are my stereotypes of Subaru outdated, or should I join the ranks of ex-Boulderites who slowly toil around in a stick-shift Legacy? For better or worse, an impending snow storm in Vail appeared to put a wrench in my cheapo rental car plans for my head-clearing pre-law school semester trip, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car responded with a 7500-mile Subaru Legacy.


Subaru seems to have done something quite incredible with the new Legacy: they managed to make it very ugly but managed to keep it completely anonymous. The front end is simply too busy, with the bottom bumper from a Ford Focus and the ungainly headlights cribbed from a children’s nightmare.

The center grill seems to have tried to emulate the much-maligned grill from recent Acuras, but gave up before meeting the hood. The center box is more appealing, with the rather clean lines even possibly indicative of sporting pretensions, but is still rather forgettable, stemming from wheel arches that everyone and their mother puts on cars these days (I’m looking at you, E90 3-series). The rear end either isn’t noticeable from angles beyond 45 degrees, or looks like a bad adaptation of a rear clip from a copyright-friendly Grand Theft Auto vehicle. Either way, initial impressions were weak, with the Toyota Camry parked next to the Legacy in the rental lot being both better proportioned and more attractive in general; this would become a comparison that would ring with increasing volume in my ears throughout my four day Colorado journey, but more on that later.


I remember getting into a 2012 Kia Sportage and thinking “wow, this is almost there”. Were previous Subarus as dreary inside as the Koreans used to be, I would have had a similar impression with the Legacy; unfortunately, the new car represents a considerable step back in interior build quality. The materials are at best equal to modern Kias, which still tend to be a bit worse than their competition. The Camry in comparison? Still mediocre for the class, but overall more solid and up-to-date than the Legacy. Late model Fords? If you have to ask, then you lack both sight and feel. At least the Legacy is fairly roomy, seeming larger inside than the Camry but if all one cares about is interior space, Chevrolet will be happy to sell you an Impala.

Driving Experience:

After an underwhelming impression on the rental car lot, I would like to say that the Subaru and I had a weekend of bonding, but saying that Pakistan has secure borders would be a more accurate statement. Let’s start with the positive: the Subaru has, despite fairly numb feel, quick steering. Turning into parking lots can be a bit of a laugh, as the quickness of turn-in can allow speeds that cause pedestrians to jump in fright. Exiting that parking lot, however, and the driver enters a world of problems. The power-train, for lack of a more descriptive term, is genuinely awful. The engine is surprisingly slow and hesitant to rev, but it is unlikely that you’ll notice due to how lackluster the CVT transmission is.

To be honest, I have a distinct hatred for CVTs; the unrelenting noise and unnatural feel alone would keep me from ever purchasing one new. I thought the CVT in the Toyota Prius was bad, but anyone who drives a Legacy will be in store for something on another level. The CVT attempts to simulate gears, but simply flat out fails in its mission. When accelerating to 35 from a stop one of two things will happen: either the car will sit at around 3000 rpm and then the revs will completely fall off as it finds another “gear”, and then you’ll start to slow down; or, the care will sit at 3000 rpm and then fail to find said theoretical gear, and then wind down with a noise so vile that the other passengers will begin to laugh.

Other faults? The wind noise is loud, the handbrake can only be disengaged while in drive, the AWD system is dodgy, the ride isn’t composed, and the MPG +/- gauge (which directly correlates to pedal travel, utterly useless) that replaces the coolant gauge becomes a minor disaster when the car begins to overheat (which it will on a spirited drive from Denver to Vail). Although I didn’t track MPG usage for my trip, as with my driving style it would be pointless, the vehicle indicated an overall 27 MPG, which is…acceptable. It is quite sad to say, but if one needs a roomy, AWD sedan, they would be much better served by the used Subaru I passed on years ago. After a long weekend, even I was surprised by the terribleness of the Legacy; to answer my original question of if I should join the ranks of the Boulder Subaru mafia with this entry, the answer is a resounding “no”.

Will Simonsick is a first year law student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. Over the past five years, he has lived in Philadelphia, Boulder, and Brussels, Belgium, and will be spending the summer outside of Frankfurt, Germany. Family rumor has it that his first word was Chevy. He is currently living in automotive purgatory in a hand-me-down Toyota Prius second generation, remaining wistful for his previous Volvo and W-body Chevrolet.

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Checking The Box. A Future Writer Story Sun, 17 Feb 2013 11:05:40 +0000

Can TTAC’s Future Writers master the tough job of a car review?  During Future Writers Week, you chose the writers you want to see again on TTAC. Here is the first car review. Do you like it? Tell us. Remember: The cars had to be scrounged somewhere, but at least the reviews should be uninfluenced by flacks or PowerPoint’s.

It was going to be one of those nights, and I knew it. The roommates were heading for a get together and they wanted me to join in. Parties are really not my gig, especially a party where I am the odd old one at thirty nine and the rest of the participants are under twenty six. But I said yes for some reason that still eludes me to this day, especially since we were going to take the roommates car. Now most folks know I am a touch of a car snob, yes I drive a Peugeot that should be getting a pension, and I have an odd taste in cars as a general rule of thumb. But let me tell you about my experience with ’the box’.

The box I am referring to is not the cheerful and hip Kia Soul, or the original box for America, the Scion Xb. No this box that my roommate owned is the 09 Nissan Cube. I find it to be a bit bling in the grill department, yet not funky enough to be memorable on the exterior for anything else save the way the rear door glass wraps around the left side. Kei car cute it is not, and I love Kei class cars. The Cube is just too large to be cute in that way, sort of a ‘Hello Kitty fart can exhaust’ cute to me really. In other words, I really wanted to put a paper bag over my head when I drove the thing because I am a bit old to drive such a generation Y oriented car.

On the inside, it is not too bad. Fit and finish appear to be the current Nissan quality, the plastics are not bean-counter cheap, and the buttons, while logical on the center stack, look like something out of Star Wars. Having to look to use the climate control is a tad annoying, but set it and forget it auto climate control makes that forgivable. The seats are moderately supportive with an upright seating position that gives good visibility even with the high belt line, but unfortunately the thick pillars kill the visibility just after you think it might be good. Let’s not forget the shag rug on the dashboard that says ‘Do not place objects on’. What am I supposed to do with it then? Wipe my feet? Let’s just say I tossed my black berry on it, which did not go sliding around the dash at lethal projectile speeds thanks to its rubber case.

I do have gripes on the inside. The steering wheel buttons are for the Play Station generation. Directional pads? Can I do up up down down left right left right B A start for unlimited lives? After a few minutes I figured out the cruise control and audio controls, and I have to say the upgraded audio is not half bad for a stock system. The back seat is my largest gripe; it does slide forward and back and the seat back even folds down, but you have to undo four bolts to remove it. It would have some serious potential to hold really large cargo in the back, if the back seat did some trick origami to fold into the floor, or at least up against the back of the front seats. Leave the seat in and the cargo room is paltry at best – I can fit more in the trunk of my Peugeot.

Now that I had it loaded with some pretty inebriated twenty-six and unders, it was time for the drive. Unfortunately this particular Cube was saddled with the Jatco JF009F CVT. I hate to say this, I really am a fan of the left pedal and few automatics impress me. This one, just like the Dodge Caliber with the CVT, did not. Let’s just hope in the long term it is more reliable than the one in the Caliber. With the 1.8 liter engine, the thing drones and makes some pretty unhappy noises when flogged onto a freeway on ramp. It feels snappy to 30mph sure, but after that the drone grates on my nerves pretty bad, though once up to speed it quiets down and becomes a competent cruiser. The rubber band effect was there too, and I think that is what pretty much turns me off to CVT gearboxes.

I could not get a real test of handling since I had three in the back that looked a bit green by the time I got on the freeway, and close proximity to an impression of the Exorcist is not something I really look forward to, so there was no finding a parking lot and flinging the thing around to find the limits of adhesion or rollover. The steering is light and rather vague for my tastes, but the tight turning circle is really good and at low speeds it darts where you point it pretty well. Shopping center parking lot antics could be a lot of fun in it. The ride spoils all of that pretty quick, however. It is bouncy and crashy over pot holes, and on Denver’s broken pavement freeway system it hobby horses badly enough that my head tapped the head restraint. I have been in smaller cars that ride way better. I did not get to test the brakes all that well, but when I whipped it into a parking lot for tacos at break neck speeds and they hauled the thing down respectably with pretty decent and firm pedal feel.

Having only put thirty or so miles on the little Cube I can’t say how good it is going to be to live with day-to-day. In town at lower speeds I would think it is a good little car, save the ride and small luggage space – not half bad, if you are under forty. For longer trips, I would opt for something a touch more comfortable and conventional.

The Nissan Cube was provided by roommate, complete with insurance, the fuel light on, and four inebriated passengers.

Michael Peerson resides in the Californian Eastern Sierras. His day job is in the telecommunications industry as a high level fiber technician. On the side, he builds odd cars and drives an old Peugeot. He owned over forty cars since he was able to drive. A few trips to Europe resulted in a love affair with two-stroke East German vehicles. At home, he has a Subaru 360 to keep that perverse fetish under control.

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Highway 1, Revisited. A Future Writer Story Sat, 16 Feb 2013 14:27:25 +0000

Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.

It’s November on the California coast, between the rains. Pismo Beach is far behind us; Monterey still far ahead. The road is HERE, the Pacific Ocean is THERE, right across the southbound lanes, over that little 6-inch-tall rock ”barrier” that would give you a good launch before you fell the 400 feet to your crunchy doom. Left-foot-braking, you trail brake into the corner, wide then tightening and then wide onto the gas. And the DSC kicks in, up front, and the line out of the corner isn’t quite what you wanted it to be.

Welcome to Highway 1.

Hwy. 1 is the coast road up the California Coast, Mexico to Oregon. Many sections are pretty pedestrian, as country highways go. Two sections are roads on the greats list: the central coast, roughly 120 miles from Moro Bay to Monterey, and the north coast, roughly Marin to Mendocino. If you aspire to be a performance driver, you should aspire to drive roads like Highway 1. I last drove the central coast section in November 2012, on my way back to the San Francisco Bay area from LA at the end of a conference. Because I was going that way anyways. Because I was driving my RX-8. Because I could.

The central coast segment is long enough that you need to prepare and plan a bit. It’s not a road to drive fast in the dark or bad weather. Plan for 3-4 hours of driving for the segment, including delays. If you’re doing it for the first time, drive it northbound (start at Morro Bay); you will be on the inside, with the southbound lanes as additional recovery space between you and Pacific oblivion if you blow a corner badly. Bring a car you know. Handling is more important than power here, if you have to trade them off.

Going north out of Morro Bay, you’re on a smooth country highway along a mostly flat coastal shelf for about 40 miles. This is a fast and beautiful country drive, lulling you into a sense of complacency.

Then the mountains meet the ocean, north of San Simeon, and that’s all over. The road goes hundreds of feet up the side of the cliff and stays there, hanging on by its teeth, and it’s on. You’re in the twisties, and you stay there for another 40 glorious miles up to Big Sur.

On clear days, views are magnificent; there’s nothing between you and Hawaii. Drive slow enough to enjoy them a bit. But the views are gravy; it’s the miles of twisties that make the road.

At 8/10 this will be a thrilling drive with world-class views. At 9/10 you are significantly at risk. Drive harder than that only with a recent will and life insurance, and preferably with a friend behind you with a GoPro or equivalent, so the rest of us can enjoy the crash afterwards on YouTube.

There are probably a thousand corners; tens of them are far trickier than they look going in. There are a couple that are more than a tenth trickier than they look. If stability control blips more than a couple of times you’re pushing it.

And you will blow corners, if you drive it fast. There are deceptively off-camber corners, decreasing radius corners that looked smooth, corners with water on the road at the apex, gravel. You are less likely to hit a deer here than elsewhere, but there are turnoffs, slow tourists in cars and RVs, bicyclists and pedestrians in the road unexpectedly. If you try to drive it without margins: oops, cliff, Pacific Ocean, splat. So know yourself, know your car, and think 8/10.

Slow down and practice finding the lines, connecting the corners. Trail brake. Drive smooth. When you are caught behind oblivious slow drivers, back off and wait; take them smooth and fast and without mercy in the reasonably frequent passing opportunities, and keep going. Take the road in and keep going. It will take everything you throw at it, and challenge you for more. It will scare you. Containing your exuberance will be the hardest challenge of all.

Drive. Even if you only do it once, drive.


George William Herbert is a driver based in Hayward, California, in the San Francisco Bay area. By day, he works for a well-known IT consulting company. He also owns a small aerospace and defense engineering consulting company. For fun, George writes, welds, attempts to design cars, works on technical issues related to nuclear proliferation, and enjoys the California roads. His favorite suspension system is double wishbone. George’s current daily driver is a 2004 Mazda RX-8.

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If Only Everything In Life Was As Reliable As A Volkswagen… A Future Writer Story. Thu, 14 Feb 2013 16:30:24 +0000


Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.

Despite living in California for nearly eight years now, and recently becoming a citizen of these United States, I still consider myself to be an Englishman. To be English in America is a generally pleasant experience – no man will ever get tired of pretty girls telling him how cute his accent is – but it is also a life full of little differences which remind you every day that this is not your home, even though it is where you live.

One such difference I have noted, particularly around this site, is the American perception of Volkswagen, which I find quite puzzling.

So please indulge me by engaging in a brief mind exercise and bounce this scenario around your brain for a moment: What if everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen?

What did you come up with? Likely some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare in which you wake up late, the shower burns you, the handle falls off your coffee mug, the toaster electrocutes you and, of course, your car doesn’t start. Which, paradoxically, would be the exact opposite of what came to my mind. In fact during the late 1980’s “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” was the slogan under which English VW’s were marketed.

Those were halcyon days for VW advertising, and I don’t just say that to ingratiate myself with the management here. The ads not only won multiple awards, but they ingrained on an impressionable populace the notion that Volkswagen equals reliability. Given whom they were up against in Europe at the time – Fiat, Alfa, Skoda, Lada, Lancia, Rover etc. – this was a message well received by the English public, and VW sales did very nicely. My old man had two Mark II GTI’s in that era, the first being written off by an American coming out of an airbase and forgetting which country he was in, and the second seeing daily service until its honorable discharge. Both of them, while they remained right side up, were totally reliable and compared to my dad’s previous car, a Rover SD1, that was a genuine revelation.

My own first car was also a VW. I had a twelve year old, late 80’s Polo shooting brake – which I beat like a rented mule but couldn’t kill off despite my best hooning efforts and laissez faire attitude towards maintenance. In addition I have driven VW’s of a more recent vintage, I know many people who owned or currently own them, and out of all those people I struggle to think of one who had the proverbial “lemon” or “garage queen”. So where is the disconnect? Honestly, I’m asking! I look forward to reading your thoughts below on how these two very different perceptions about the same product can exist. I will even throw a couple of ideas out there myself, beyond the distinct possibility I was brainwashed into believing VW’s are great by Mad Men.

Firstly, I think Skoda was a massive coup for VW in Europe. It is hard to overstate what a joke Skoda was in the latter part of the last century, but once they came fully under the VW umbrella in 2000 the turnaround in public perception was remarkably quick – I mean so quick it makes Kia and Hyundai look like pikers. Going from less than zero to being the thinking (if thrifty) man’s choice in 5 years or so is quite a feat. VW very literally staked their reputation on Skoda by courageously advertising the brand as “Skoda, made by Volkswagen”. Fortunately that risk paid off and the public perception of VW is much better for it – after all if they can do the impossible with their budget brand then the premium version must be amazing, right?

Secondly I think that the general perception of German automobiles in Europe is rather untarnished compared to here in the US. An Englishman may question Germany’s ability to play football, but their industrial capability is beyond reproach. The reason for this is twofold: compared to other European volume manufacturers, like the aforementioned Rover, Fiat and Renault, German brands are perceived to be light years ahead in desirability and reliability. Also, perhaps more importantly, the Japanese have not made anywhere near such a big impression on the European market as they have over here. In America Toyota’s are ubiquitous and the gold standard for reliability, but in England they are rare and the brand is not well understood – Wolfsburg is certainly not losing any sleep over being able to avoid that comparison.

I would also suggest that VW’s focus in the segments that Europeans care about most – the small to mid size – gives the brand more positive mindshare over there than the same cars could ever achieve in the land of the F-150 and luxo-barge. Finally I will go out on a limb and guess that the dealer experience closer to the mothership is a bit more pleasant, but then having teeth pulled is more pleasant than any US dealership experience.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is all she wrote. I shan’t describe the tortures threatened for newbies exceeding their word limit – suffice to say that I dare not continue and must reluctantly pass the torch on to you. Why do you think VW has such a poor reputation in this country? Poor amongst the cognoscenti on this site at least, sales seem to be going gangbusters with the wider public.

Andrew Nevick is a lapsed Englishman who lives in rural San Diego county and programs mobile software for a living, mainly iPhone and Android games. He drives a Prius and rides a Ducati, both thrill him, in different ways.

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Life Before The SUV. A Future Writer Story. Sun, 10 Feb 2013 13:26:53 +0000

Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.

Jeff called while I was watching the Ed Sullivan Show. He was my best friend, but it was odd for him call on a Sunday night. (As eighth-graders in 1968, it was unusual for any of us to call our friends except to see if they were available to “do something” at that moment, and we never did anything on Sunday nights.) Jeff did something all by himself. Jeff liked to take his parents’ 1967 Saab 96 around the block when they were gone and, that evening, he overshot the turn onto his street, jumping the ditch and landing in his next-door neighbor’s front yard. After repeatedly killing the engine while attempting to get traction, he managed to exit the yard. As this was a two-cycle three cylinder Saab that sounded like a chain saw when revved, Jeff assumed the neighbors, or the police, would soon be paying a visit.

The next morning, I walked a few blocks from my usual bus stop to survey the damage. It had rained the day before, so the Saab’s comma-shaped tracks were long and deep. When Jeff and his father drove by later that day, his father pointed to the damage, saying: “Looks like a small car went in there.” Jeff agreed : “Sure does…must’ve been a VW.”

We lived in a new subdivision and took to driving in the vacant lots that had recently been farm fields. No one owned trucks, or what we now know as SUVs: gas stations had Jeeps, Broncos and Scouts for snow plowing, and most of the pickups we saw were owned by the farmers occupying the undeveloped half of our town. Getting stuck was par for the course. A floor mat under the drive wheel usually provided sufficient traction in mud. Drainage ditches, nearly invisible in fields overgrown with weeds, were the biggest hazard – once your front wheels dropped in, the only way out required jacking up the front end and piling field stones under the wheels. Apart from a Corvair that landed hard after cresting a rise, snapping its oil filter mounting, significant damage was rare.

Once we were street legal, fresh snow provided cheap thrills. On a road slippery with fresh snow, the Saab 96 proved that a reverse spin could be accomplished in a front wheel drive car simply by giving the hand brake a sharp pull. A few years later, Jeff’s family moved on to the then-new Saab 99. Compared to the rear-drive domestic cars the rest of us drove, the 99 was fairly adept in snow. After snow storms we cruised back roads, searching for drifts which, if taken fast enough, allowed us to become airborne for a moment. Due to our inability to get up enough speed, and because it was at least four feet deep, an attempt on a drift in a school driveway failed, leaving the Saab perched atop it. Luckily, (it was -10 with a -40 wind chill, and we had only a collapsible army surplus shovel), a front end loader happened by and pulled us off, but not before the loader’s driver made us explain “what the hell were we doing.”

Given the prevalence of SUVs and trucks in today’s family fleets, these types of adventures must be different for today’s teenage boys. As SUVs are far more capable than the cars we drove, I wouldn’t expect vacant suburban lots to provide much of a challenge. The same is probably true for thrill-seeking on snowy roads. Of course, the level of risk-taking has probably increased with the corresponding increase in vehicle capability. Nevertheless, I want to believe that off-roading and drift busting isn’t the same in an SUV. Just as driving a slow car fast is more fun than driving a fast car slow, driving a car like a truck is more fun than driving a truck like a car.

Keith is a 50-something attorney, born in Detroit, now living in Appleton, Wisconsin. His interest in cars started when he was three or four, awoken by genes provided by a father who worked for Ford. Kevin does “not want to be defined by what I drive but the most fun cars I’ve owned include an ’83 GTI, ’96 Contour SE, ’98 S70 GLT, ’06 325i, and ’10 535xi.”

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Exotic Cars: Buy, Or By The Hour? Today: Lotus Elise. A Future Writer Story Sat, 09 Feb 2013 15:55:45 +0000

Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.

I thought I was hard-core. People who complain about the Lotus Elise’s lack of creature comforts or suspension compliance are wimps I thought. Many of us would agree that pure driving pleasure outweighs most other considerations. The Elise is the ultimate test of this idea.  Buy or by the hour? Let’s do the test.

I had lusted after the Elise ever since seeing one in Europe in the late 1990‘s. Everything I had read about it perfectly meshed with my ideas about sports cars. After owning a ’91 Miata for almost ten years, owning the Elise was the next logical step. When I first sat in one in 2005 upon its release in the U.S., I knew I would own a used one someday. The styling was to die for, the cockpit was starkly beautiful in its own way, and the mechanical-feeling shifter was a joy.

Renting The Elise

Around 2007, my wife and I rented one in Vegas for the day and drove it hard for many miles on great twisty roads. It was my favorite bright red color and drove like a dream. As both a driver and passenger, I was pleasantly surprised that the car was not as rough or noisy inside, as I had been led to believe.

In 2009, after owning several Porsches and various BMW’s, I again rented an Elise in Vegas. Another red beauty, this time for 4 hours. I spent the entire 4 hours driving with only a 15-minute break for food, and loved every minute of it. Again, I had no issues with the noise or the firm suspension.

Renting verdict: Can’t possibly have more fun when paying by the hour.

Buying The Elise

Forward to 2012 and I finally bought an Elise (bright red of course). On the 5 1/2 hour drive home through Pennsylvania from the private seller’s house I had a great time but I also noticed that the interior noise level & ride were more intense than I remembered in Vegas. Hello reality — in the Northern Virginia / DC area where I live the roads are nothing like the smooth Vegas roads. Are there any other negatives? There sure are.

Big Negative #1: Parking Paranoia

Physically, I was the perfect Elise driver: I’m only 5’6” tall and very skinny, so climbing in & out of the car was no big deal (but hugely entertaining watching others try), and I fit well in the narrow seats. These seats however started to become a bit painful on my back after a few months of daily driving. Yes, I drove the car almost daily into DC to work (only one way during rush hour) and actually parallel parked it sometimes on those mean streets. I had fabricated a front license plate bracket to screw into the front tow hook hole and mounted it when parking to avoid tickets. Once I returned to my car to find this front place bent as someone had backed into it but luckily no damage to the all-one-piece front fiberglass clamshell piece.

Big Negative #2: Interior Noise Levels.

The engine sound was enjoyable but loud even with the stock exhaust — especially on the overrun. I would even sometimes shift to neutral to enjoy the silence while coasting to a stop. Sounds wimpy I know but we’re talking almost-daily driver here in heavy traffic and it was still just a massaged Toyota 4-banger not some exotic powerplant.

Complementing the engine sounds were massive amounts of interior road & wind noise. The soft top leaks air quite a bit at highway speeds and combined with the engine made the stereo pretty much unlistenable on the highway.

Big Negative #3: Unbelievably Bad Stereo

Anything above crawling speeds made the stereo virtually unlistenable. I immediately upgraded the stock front speakers which helped some, but it was still just a mess. I know that in a car like this listening to the stereo isn’t really the point but in a daily driver it’s a bit different. Many owners upgrade the audio but with such high interior noise levels this seems pointless.

Big Negative #4: Unbelievably Rough Ride

As mentioned, on my two Vegas joyrides I had no complaints, but on the rough streets in my area it was shocking how shocking the bumps were. Hitting large bumps or potholes produced such a loud & jarring shudder that I began to (rather unsafely) dodge such hazards at the expense of level-headed driving. Such bumps made me think that the car was being damaged every time — this feeling did not go away with familiarity even though I knew that the car could (probably) take it. It was just so unsettling to have the whole car crashing around me sounding like it was about to break in half.

Big Negative #5: Rough Road Handling

It is said and often written that “The Elise is one of the best handling cars ever made.” Any enthusiast has read such words many times, and yet my experience was quite different. The stiff suspension, low weight and short wheelbase are ideal for the track or smooth roads. However, in the real world of crumbling roads, mid-corner bumps would case the rear end to bounce sideways, thus eroding my confidence in the car’s abilities. Combined with the lack of stability control, the skittish rear end put a damper on some of the fun factor whenever I would push the car a bit. I have owned and driven many other sports cars and the Elise just didn’t make me feel like I could push too hard in my normal driving. For those of you wondering, the car had low miles, was never tracked or crashed and after purchase I had my dealer check all suspension bolt torques which were fine. One possible caveat is that the fairly new rear tires were not OEM but were some obscure brand I’d never heard of installed by the original owner. To me this would only apply to cornering grip and not bouncing around in a corner however. Cornering grip was still outstanding on smooth surfaces.


Big Negative #6: Wind Noise With the Top Removed

The Elise has no topless air management whatsoever. I’ve owned & driven many convertibles and the Lotus has the worst wind-management I’ve ever experienced. With the targa soft top removed, highway driving is almost unbearable from the wind noise unless you put the windows up. Removing & installing the top is just enough of a pain to encourage you to leave it on most of the time, and when removed, it’s difficult to stow in the trunk so it takes up the passenger footwell.

I owned the Lotus for about 7 months and am very glad I did, but the driving experience along with the practicalities (Parking! Fiberglass body! Backaches!) just weren’t working for my driving in my area with heavy traffic & poor road conditions.

I still think it’s one of the best-looking cars ever made, and I loved the shift feel (which is strangely criticized by many owners on the LotusTalk forum). I also enjoyed the unique interior and overall “exoticness” of the car along with the direct unfiltered mid-engined driving experience.

Buying verdict:  Definitely not a hassle-free marriage

The Final Verdict

Elise is fun by the hour, but a drama queen in daily life. I highly recommend renting the Elise when visiting Vegas or LA, but owning it should be approached with caution…

Jeff Snavely lives in Northern Virginia (suburban Washington DC) and is a military musician by trade. A lifelong car enthusiast, he has owned many used cars over the years – mostly German along with a few Saabs and some Japanese as well.

Note: There is a poll embedded within this post, please visit the site to participate in this post's poll. The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely The Elise. Picture courtesy Jeff Snavely Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail
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A Future Writer Story: My Neighbor’s Old Bike Thu, 07 Feb 2013 17:57:28 +0000

His avatar in big

Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.

My neighbor growing up, Wayne Stork, was a quiet, gentle guy who loved machines. Growing up as a car nut myself, it was hard to miss the fact that the Storks had almost every kind of cool machine you could imagine – motorcycles, trucks, cars, boats, tractors, hay bailers, even a couple of bulldozers and a ramp truck. If it rolled, floated, or crawled, Wayne probably owned it at one time or another.

For a guy who loved machines, however, Wayne had one fault – he never took care of anything. As a result every machine he owned died within a few years of purchase. That was no problem, however, Wayne simply dragged it out into the woods and got something else. Nature took care of the rest.

Like everyone who loves machines, sooner or later Wayne brought home a motorcycle. It was beautiful black Honda 300 Dream with chrome exhaust pipes and hard plastic saddle bags. It was the first real bike can recall and the effect was mesmerizing on every kid in the neighborhood. It drew us in like moths to a flame and we spent hours admiring it as it sat on the car port.

Wayne was proud of the Honda. He doted on it, bought various doo-dads from JC Whitney and polished it religiously. Unlike so many machines that had preceded it, Wayne’s interest in the bike did not wane and he took good care of it – until he had his big crash.

Wayne’s crash was caused by a slick road in the latter part of autumn. His spill was not enough to do any real damage to the bike but it scared him enough that he brought the bike home, parked it under the eaves of the house and never threw a leg over it again

The years passed and the big Honda suffered as it sat semi exposed to the elements. The saddle bags filled with water and their once bright felt red linings rotted away. The seat split and its orange foam spilled out into the elements where it eventually hardened and chipped away in tiny pieces. Chrome parts pitted, then rusted and the paint faded to a dull hopeless shade of black. Generations of spiders lived in the nooks and crannies of the engine and their webs collected debris. The tires cracked with age and grass grew up through the spokes where it withered and died every autumn. The bike sat there so long that it ceased to be a vehicle and became a part of the yard. It languished, hopeless and forgotten, until the that I bought my own motorcycle.

Wayne’s son, Kenny, was especially excited when I brought home my Kawasaki. At 17 he wanted to ride in the worst way, and because my new bike was obviously off limits, he determined that the best way to get on the street was the old 300. So, like countless motorcycle obsessed teenagers before him, Kenny hatched a plan.

I wish I could say Kenny restored the old bike, but that didn’t happen. Together, we pulled the old Honda away from the side of the house and pulled the many strands of dead grass out of the spokes. We then used the garden hose to wash away a decade’s worth of cobwebs, dead bugs and dried leaves, pumped up the tires and added some lawn mower gas to the odd smelling liquid sloshing around in the old bike’s tank. After cleaning the spark plugs, Kenny used a screwdriver to jimmy the bike’s ignition switch to “on.” Then, Kenny started kicking.

He kicked once, then twice and on the third kick the old bike fired and struggled into a clattering, uneven idle. As it sputtered and belched smoke, Kenny revved the engine, pulled in the clutch and kicked it into gear. Easing out the clutch, he rolled the old bike down the driveway and into the street. After a moment of amazed shock, I followed on my Kawasaki.

The old bike chugged down the street and then out onto the six mile loop around a local lake. At every stop sign the bike shuddered and shook, but, when the time came to go again, it gathered itself and struggled onward. It wasn’t fast, but it was glorious. Upon our return, Kenny rolled the bike back to its place under the eaves from which, so far as I know, it never moved again.

You can say “they don’t build them like that anymore.” You can say that technology has stripped the emotion from the driving experience. You can say that today’s cars lack soul and that they will never be more than the sum of their parts. They said that back then too, and they were wrong.

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, he talks mostly about himself.

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