The Truth About Cars » jack baruth http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 01 Sep 2015 13:15:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.4 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 » jack baruth http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com No Fixed Abode: Whatcha Gonna Do When They Don’t Come For You? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/08/no-fixed-abode-whatcha-gonna-dont-come/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/08/no-fixed-abode-whatcha-gonna-dont-come/#comments Fri, 14 Aug 2015 14:00:36 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1140242 Might as well admit it: I have an unhealthy fascination with the service known as car2go. It’s just so… improbable. I’m pretty sure it began as a way to dump some Smart “ForTwo” inventory into service so the Daimler-Benz lines could keep operating at something like capacity. Since its inception, the service has been in […]

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Might as well admit it: I have an unhealthy fascination with the service known as car2go. It’s just so… improbable. I’m pretty sure it began as a way to dump some Smart “ForTwo” inventory into service so the Daimler-Benz lines could keep operating at something like capacity. Since its inception, the service has been in near-constant flux: adding and removing services, changing the fees in predictable and unpredictable ways, suffering service outages, and generally perplexing its customer base, of which I am a devoted and unusually enthusiastic member.

car2go‘s newest change, communicated to me via email yesterday, concerns a significant reduction in their service area. After confirming that my usual lunch runs remain possible, I thought no more about it.

For a while, anyway.


In the eight months since I joined the service, I’ve never used car2go for anything more substantial than a trip to lunch or the library. And since Columbus, Ohio came up with the idea of converting thirty-eight meter spaces throughout the city to single-annual-fee motorcycle parking, my need for a car2go has significantly diminished. This upcoming winter, however, when I have to drive my car downtown and take an early-morning space in a garage that fills by 9 a.m. and therefore effectively locks me out of using said car until I leave for the day, I’m likely to return to the ranks of frequent car2go users.

In that sense, car2go is to me what the idea of marriage was to the writer Mary Gordon: “a harbor into which one may sail in and out as one wishes, in perfect safety and confidence.” When I need it, I use it. When I don’t, I don’t. And unlike Zipcar, there is no annual fee or minimum usage, so I pay nothing to have the option available. Not a bad deal, really. In that respect, it’s much like public transport. As an example, I find myself using the subways in New York City perhaps a dozen times a year, if that. It would be ridiculous for me to pay any sort of annual fee for access to the subway. I assume that my use of the subway fits into a pattern of usage that is calculated and accounted for by the shadowy masters of the MTA and that therefore I am free to rely on the subway’s existence while offering it no security or assurances in return.

I’d be remiss if I did not contrast that to the uneasy relationship most Americans have with their employers in the modern world, where we are expected to sacrifice everything from our health to our relationships with our children to obey the employer’s every whim while at the same time passively accepting the employer’s right to terminate us the minute we are what The Wire’s Avon Barksdale referred to as a little slow, a little late. “And how,” Barksdale asks his cousin, “you ain’t gonna never be slow? Never be late? You can’t plan through no shit like this, man. It’s life.” We live our dingy-collar lives tied to our employers through a “Bring Your Own Device” policy that charges us with the responsibility of paying for our own 24/7 electronic shackles and expects us to be grateful as a result.

“I’m so happy,” a friend of mine said, as she waved around an iPhone that cost her six hundred dollars and which she primarily used to read her work email, “that I don’t have to carry two phones around all day.” But do any of us remember the day when we carried around no phones at all? Oh, well. If you don’t like it, vote for Bernie Sanders, assuming anybody is going to let him finish a speech in the near future without treating him like Kanye treated Taylor Swift. Back to the matter at hand.

I do not depend on car2go. But that does not mean that nobody depends on car2go. For some people who live in the service area and primarily need a car to travel to work or run occasional errands, it could replace a personally owned car. You can do the math like this. Let’s say you live three miles from your job. When the weather is good, you walk. Two days a week in most seasons and four days a week in winter, you use car2go. By my calculations, using car2go you can expect to pay about $1,100 a year for those trips. Add a weekly shopping trip of similar distance and you’re up to $1,500. If you work downtown in any city with a parking density issue, which is pretty much everywhere but Detroit nowadays, it’s cheaper to take the car2go to and from work than it is to park your own car downtown. In fact, I can’t think of any scenario where someone can own, operate, and insure an automobile of any reliability whatsoever for $1,500 a year.

For our hypothetical users, car2go functions much like public transportation. But it’s better, because it runs on your schedule, it’s flexible, and it’s far safer than taking public transportation. Particularly at night, and particularly if you’re not the master of nine martial arts and a champion of the Frank Dux Underground Kumite that I know every single reader of the B&B probably is. So I’m not surprised to read that people have sold their cars to rely on the service.

With the recent service-area shrinkages in Columbus and many other car2go cities, however, some of those people are now out in the cold. And since “moovel”, the Daimler spinoff that operates car2go, is a private service, there’s no appealing this decision. You aren’t going to go to a town hall meeting and get your car2go back the way you and your neighbors might be able to pressure a transit authority into restoring service to a particular area. There are numerous benefits to car2go’s private status — the fact that homeless people don’t defecate in the cars they way they do in and around public transit in San Francisco is one of them — but the downside is that you’re just the customer, not a stakeholder in the enterprise.

The nice people at car2go have the right to change their service area to exclude six percent of their customers, the same way FedEx has the right to tell you they can’t or won’t deliver to a certain address too far away from their offices. But it’s a worthwhile reminder of two facts. The first fact is that, for those who can afford it, there is absolutely no substitute for privately owned transportation. No public or part-time solution will ever match the convenience of getting in your own car and going where you want to go on your timeline. And while I understand that doing so is intergalactically expensive in Manhattan and Los Angeles and Chicago, for most of the country it’s so much better than any of the alternatives that virtually any sacrifice is justified to keep it.

The second fact is this: we live now in a world where “disruptive enterprises” like Uber move faster and travel lighter than any publicly-operated competition or governmental regulation can predict or anticipate. As the forces aligned against private automobile ownership gain strength and momentum, we are no doubt going to hear how it’s totally fine for you, Joe Average, to abandon your car in favor of roving electric taxis or cloud-computed ride-sharing services or surge-demand rentals or human-scale Amazon drones or who knows what. But before you turn in your keys for the last time, think long and hard about the fine print in your submission. What is convenient and profitable today might not be convenient and profitable tomorrow. When you hand over your travel sovereignty to parties unknown, make sure they’ll come when you call, okay?

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Bro, Do You Even Lift? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/08/bro-even-lift/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/08/bro-even-lift/#comments Tue, 04 Aug 2015 13:00:57 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1133017 Last week, our own Doug DeMuro asked the B&B for their opinion on the stupidest automotive feature. He then gave his personal opinion as to what that feature might be. I’m here to tell you why he’s completely wrong, and why he’s probably also completely right. Let’s review Doug’s suggestion for “stupidest automotive feature” right […]

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Last week, our own Doug DeMuro asked the B&B for their opinion on the stupidest automotive feature. He then gave his personal opinion as to what that feature might be. I’m here to tell you why he’s completely wrong, and why he’s probably also completely right.


Let’s review Doug’s suggestion for “stupidest automotive feature” right quick:

I’ve never really understood the purpose of this retractable spoiler. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when you see it sticking out on a Porsche 911, the driver is just cruising down the interstate. That’s because the spoiler is designed to deploy based on speed, not driving style, apparently in some bizarre effort to keep your car on the road should you begin to experience the effects of a massive windstorm.

The funny thing is these spoilers are never adequately sized to actually do anything. They’re just there to be spoilers, so you can tell your friends you have a cool spoiler that extends out at speed as if you’re in a race car, when in reality the spoiler is the size of a license plate and it wouldn’t have any effect on any vehicle larger than a Hot Wheels.

Obviously Doug’s aiming for humor here, but as TTAC’s resident owner of a Porsche with a retractable spoiler, I feel compelled to defend the indefensible for a moment and to explain just why the retractable spoiler was such a brilliant idea at one time. And then I’ll have to admit why it’s not such a great idea now.

Let’s start with why you would want a spoiler at all. Consider, if you will, the airplane wing. You all remember how that works, right?

bernoulli

The air moving over the top of the wing has a longer path to travel. It therefore moves faster and creates a zone of low pressure above the wing. Since the pressure beneath the wing, on the flat surface, stays the same, the net effect is to lift the wing.

Having looked at the side profile of a wing, let’s look at the side profile of a proper 911.

911wing

You can clearly see how a 911, or any vehicle that approximates the shape of a wing, generates aerodynamic lift at speed. This aerodynamic lift reduces the pressure on the tires and reduces their ability to grip the road. Moreover, for reasons that it would take more than a paragraph to explain, the lift tends to be strongest at the back of the “wing”. For that reason, the original 911 tended to be difficult to control as high speed, because not only was it suffering a grip problem as speeds increased, it was also experiencing a change in the ratio of grip between the front and rear wheels. Today’s 911 GT3 has 245-width tires in front and 305-width tires in back, but the original 911 had 165-width tires both front and rear, leading to some genuinely troubling behavior once you got much above 80mph or so.

Porsche addressed this with the fastest early 911, the Carrera RS 2.7, by adding a “ducktail”.

1973-Porsche-Carrera-2_7-RS-sm

The ducktail disrupted, or “spoiled”, the wing-like airflow and caused an area of high pressure over the back wheels that helped reduce the overall wing effect. Note that a ducktail or any similar spoiler can’t really create measurable downforce. Its purpose is just to remove some of the lift. The first-generation Audi TT, for example, had a 911-style tapering rear. That shape reportedly generated about 140 pounds of lift over the rear wheels at 125 mph. After five people died in accidents that might have been related to high-speed handling issues, Audi installed a small lip spoiler to reduce that rear lift by about two-thirds.

Now let’s look at a 911 with a wing, as opposed to a spoiler:

1974-Porsche-RSR-Turbo-Carrera-Side-600x377

That’s a wing, you see. It creates measurable aerodynamic downforce on the rear of the car, increasing grip as your speed increases. Very few street cars have wings that increase downforce, although the Viper ACR sure as hell does; most street cars have spoilers that reduce lift somewhat. The difference between a spoiler and a wing is that cars with wings grip better at 150 mph than 50, whereas cars with spoilers do not grip as well at higher speeds. They’re just less troublesome.

Porsche’s justification for restricting the use of spoilers to the Carrera RS and, a few years later, the Turbo Carrera was simple: Spoilers are aesthetically impure and unpleasant, so they should be limited to very fast road cars. A 1970 911T was many things, but with only 125 or so horses it wasn’t fast.

The arrival of the 964-generation 911, with its 250-horsepower 3.6-liter engine, put the company in a bit of a pickle. It was pretty much as fast as a ’77 Turbo Carrera, if not a bit faster, so shouldn’t it have a spoiler out back? The obvious answer from an engineering and safety perspective was “yes”, but the aesthetic and marketing issue wasn’t as clear cut. While American buyers were big fans of “whale tails” and the like, making cars like the paper-tiger Carrera 3.2 “Turbo-Look” big sellers, Europeans supposedly preferred the clean look of a slick-tail 911. The largely mythical high-powered German businessman, using his 911 or S-Class or BMW as an alternative to high-speed rail across West Germany, was still a powerful enough archetype to swing product-planning decisions in the pre-tech-boom, pre-Russian-capitalism market.

So Porsche came up with a solution. The 964 looked like a standard 911 at rest, but at freeway speeds it would deploy just enough spoiler to bring rear-end lift within safe parameters. It’s really a brilliant idea. Doug’s note that the spoilers deploy at odd speeds is, I believe, an effort on the part of Porsche to prevent the deployment of a spoiler from being evidence that the driver was speeding. You really only need the spoiler at 80 mph or above, but in a country with a 65 mph speed limit, that’s problematic to have it deploy at illegal velocities.

Having driven a variety of Porsches at relatively high speeds, I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the retractable spoiler. The photo at the top of this article shows me and my son doing about 100 mph on the back straight of Mid-Ohio. He was only three years old at the time so I was anxious not to kill him. The rear spoiler makes the handling of the 993 very predictable and safe — from a perspective of rear-engined sports cars, anyway.

Why doesn’t every car have a retractable spoiler? Well, most cars are designed in a wind tunnel to minimize lift nowadays, something that didn’t happen as much in 1963 when the original 911 bodyshell made its debut. And most cars are far more wedge-shaped than a 911. Still, it’s worth noting that non-Porsche cars with the same sort of boat-tail rear, like the current AMG GT-S, often feature an active rear spoiler. The VW Corrado, another car that pioneered this feature in the late Eighties, almost certainly didn’t need it, being wedge-shaped and already featuring a small lip at the end of the tailgate — but what the hell, it was fun. It’s not uncommon to see NASA Time Trial Corvettes with a “Gurney flap” bolted on to the rear deck. The Gurney flap is a more aggressive kind of spoiler. The current Corvette, when ordered in Z51 form, comes standard with a Gurney flap.

Like Doug DeMuro, I have little patience for people who use the button to keep the spoiler deployed. But I’ve found a justification for having the button around: When there’s a cute girl working the drive-through at Wendy’s, you can deploy the spoiler while talking to her as a conversation device. If you think this has never gotten a Porsche driver laid, you’d be wrong, although it makes enemies more often than it makes friends.

As to why current Porsches, which are wind-tunneled to a fare-thee-well, feature the retractable spoiler, I think I covered the reasons for that a few weeks ago. The “base” 911 is now associated with a retractable spoiler, so that’s why the Panamera has one and why the Cayman has a tiny one. But we’ve long since abandoned the idea that the 911 is purchased by steely-eyed German company directors who like to do 250 km/h in a rainstorm. It’s safe to say that pretty much everybody who buys a 911 today would like to have actual racing wings on the thing. The only reason they don’t all have wings is because that’s how they get you to pay more money for the car. There’s no way the fixed wings on the GT3 cost more to make than the retractable arrangement on a base Carrera 2, but we’re talking about a company that charges you more to not have a convertible top on your Boxster.

So the retractable spoiler is technically sound, but it’s socially stupid — which makes Doug wrong, and right. But as for me and my 911, we will continue to prefer it. Perhaps the best comment I ever heard about the feature, however, came from a female friend of mine, a former stripper and escort, who was driving behind me on the freeway years ago and said to me afterwards, “Well, that car’s just like a girl: when you want to hustle, you got to stick your ass up.” Now that’s smart, right?

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No Fixed Abode: Walljobbed. http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/06/no-fixed-abode-walljobbed/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/06/no-fixed-abode-walljobbed/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 14:00:28 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1102601 I grew up in the back of two-door family cars ranging from a ’67 Camaro to an ’83 Civic 1500 “S”. It never seemed like a hardship to me. Nor does it seem like a hardship to have my six-year-old son in the back of my Accord Coupe. He knows how to let himself in […]

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I grew up in the back of two-door family cars ranging from a ’67 Camaro to an ’83 Civic 1500 “S”. It never seemed like a hardship to me. Nor does it seem like a hardship to have my six-year-old son in the back of my Accord Coupe. He knows how to let himself in and out of the back seat. It’s no different from having a four-door sedan and letting him out of the back door. Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t even think about it.

The other one percent of the time is when I clean the interior of the car. It takes the strength of Hercules and the flexibility of a Cirque du Soleil headliner to get the explosion of fast food, Legos, school paperwork, and miscellaneous unidentifiable items out of the cave behind the front seats. And then I have to condition the leather, you see, which would work better if my arms were between six and eighteen inches longer. So having done all that this past Sunday, I figured I’d do my other least favorite job: brake dust removal. I was already in a bit of a bad mood, crouching next to my Griot’s Garage bucket and shaking out my favorite horse-hair wheel brush, when I saw it.

Oh, hell no.


It was just a two-inch scratch on the rim of the rear wheel, from parallel parking downtown. Most people wouldn’t think twice about it. But I just about lost my mind, because:

a) I don’t scratch wheels. In more than fifteen years of owning cars with low-profile alloy wheels, I’d only scraped one wheel prior to Sunday.
b) That wheel also being one of the wheels on my Accord. I’d scraped it a few months ago on a curb. But two weeks ago I had the tires rotated as part of a 22,500-mile service, which meant that this was a second scrape, likely from the same thing.

The idea that I’d scraped two wheels in under a month was enough to make me consider tearing up my license and riding a bicycle downtown from now on. I was still in a foul mood as I put some Armor All on the front tires, which were torn up from a couple of trackdays.

Wait.

I’d just had the tires rotated front to rear. By rights, the worn shoulders should have been on the back now. But they were still up front. And a quick check of the other three wheels revealed that none of them were scraped. That was good news because it meant that my lifetime wheel damage count was stuck at one. But it meant that I’d been walljobbed.

Car and Driver’s brilliant and innovative technical editor, Patrick Bedard, wrote a column entitled “The Wall Job” back in the magazine’s glory days. A “wall job”, if you haven’t already figured it out, is when a shop takes a car in for service, parks it against the wall for a few days, then returns it to the customer along with a bill for work that the customer cannot readily verify. The various consumer-protection laws that require  the customer be given the option of getting the “old parts” back are meant to address the wall-jobbing problem. I don’t know how effective they are. To begin with, most people can’t tell the difference between a control module for a Rolls-Royce Ghost and a distributor cap for a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, and they aren’t interested in getting a bag full of mystery junk with their credit-card receipt.

Furthermore, much of modern automotive service leaves no parts behind. The five hours of diagnosis with a Bosch “Hammer” tool that your dealer supposedly put in before figuring out why your 964 Carrera stalls at lights? The road testing that was necessary to figure out that mystery vibration? How do you know how much of it was done, if any?

The first thing I did when I realized I’d been wall-jobbed on my tire rotation was to pop the hood on the Accord and look carefully at the oil. Oil changes are famous walljob candidates, but in this case the dealer had done right: the oil was clear and clean. The filter, too, looked new. So that much, as least, was correct. On the other hand, I had serious doubts that the “multi-point visual inspection” required by Honda, and paid for by me, had been performed.

I looked at the receipt and saw that I’d paid $19.95 plus tax for the rotation. That’s something I can do myself, but it takes me a bit of time and annoyance to do it. Twenty bucks to save a dirty half hour of my time is a deal with which I can live. But twenty bucks for nothing? The hell with that.

This morning I called the dealership. My service advisor was brusque at first. “Why do you think your tires haven’t been rotated?” I explained. She seemed doubtful. “What do you want me to do?”

“I want my twenty bucks back.”

“Are you willing to bring the car by so we can look at it?”

“Absolutely.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the tires have been rotated.”

“Not in this case.” And then I discussed the nature of my part-time job as an automotive writer and how I could earn twenty dollars back by mentioning the name of the dealer in an article.

“We’ll call you back.” Which they did, an hour later. Good news! My entire seventy-eight dollar service had been refunded. And they’d be happy to rotate my tires for free. I told them I’d handle it myself, and that I was satisfied with the deal. In truth, I wasn’t. Not really. From now until the time my car is out of warranty, I’ll be verifying everything they claim to have done myself. I could change dealers, but what’s the point? The new dealer could be just as bad, or worse. Better to deal with these people. Maybe they’ll be more likely to do the work now.

I’ve written time and time again about how far more of the car business revolves around dealers than most people realize. Everything from product mix to warranty terms is a product of interactions with dealers. They are enshrined by state laws that the dealer associations purchase at considerable expense. They are the true customers of the manufacturers. And when their interests conflict with yours, they will nearly always win the battle.

After hanging up the phone, I asked myself if this incident would keep me from buying another Honda. The truthful answer is: probably not. I don’t like Honda dealers in general, and I’ve yet to see one that treats the customer with the consideration and truthfulness that I’ve experienced as an owner of BMWs, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes, and even Land Rovers, but that’s what you get for shopping in the discount aisle. Wal-Mart doesn’t treat its customers the way that Nordstrom does, and Honda dealers don’t treat their customers the way that Audi dealers do. Moreover, Honda can’t do much to change the state of affairs any more than a husband in a thirty-year marriage can dictate terms to his wife, and for pretty much the same reasons.

If the manufacturers had any real power on the ground of customer/dealer interactions, they’d make damned sure dealers didn’t endanger their next thirty-three-thousand dollar transaction to make a quick twenty bucks on a walljob tire rotation. But dealers don’t look at it that way. They see the chance to make a few hundred, or even a few thousand dollars, every day. That adds up in a hurry, and it makes a lot more difference to the bottom line than another “mini-deal” to some jerk who has the invoice price and the incentives printed out in a manila folder and doesn’t want to pay a penny of net profit on his next car.

So from now on, I’ll treat my dealer like Reagan treated Gorbachev. Trust, but verify. And if the day ever comes that my opinion or my vote might possibly matter to anyone as regards the possibility of manufacturer-owned stores in Ohio, I’ll be right there in the ballot box. But really, what chance is there of that? What chance do mere voters have against people who make twenty dollars a shot all day, every day, for precisely nothing? How do you out-vote someone who uses your own money to buy votes? Didn’t there used to be a political party that promised to rebalance the scale in the favor of the consumer? What about the Supreme Court? I hear they’ve been doing a lot for individual liberties lately – but when it comes to dealer franchise protection, they sided with the multi-millionaire “little guys”, not the customer.

I guess you really can put a price on change. That price is $19.95.

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The Night That Danger Girl Stole A Black Challenger From The Airport http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/night-danger-girl-stole-black-challenger-airport/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/night-danger-girl-stole-black-challenger-airport/#comments Sat, 30 May 2015 17:00:14 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1077714 “Let me show you how this works,” Danger Girl laughed, as we descended the stairs in the airport parking garage. I call her Danger Girl because 0. I keep putting her in danger, sometimes mortal; 1. She soloed in a Cessna before she turned seventeen; 2. She has certain other dangerous habits that, this being […]

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“Let me show you how this works,” Danger Girl laughed, as we descended the stairs in the airport parking garage. I call her Danger Girl because

0. I keep putting her in danger, sometimes mortal;
1. She soloed in a Cessna before she turned seventeen;
2. She has certain other dangerous habits that, this being a different kind of publication than it was in days past, cannot be discussed in the full and frank fashion with which it was once my delight to oppress our more delicate readers.

She’d told me that we were renting a Camry. I was happy about this. I like renting Camrys. But as we walked towards a line of cars that clearly included Camrys, Danger Girl took a sharp right turn towards a black Challenger in what I was pretty sure was the rental return lane. “I can take any car I want,” she informed me, “so I’m going to take this one.” I loaded our luggage into the wide, flat, Seventies-style trunk as she fired up the Pentastar and adjusted the seat. “Off we go!” she laughed, and we drove up two levels of a circular ramp and out into the warm California night.

As we entered the freeway, something occurred to me.

“Hey… aren’t you supposed to, like, tell somebody you’re taking this car?”


Danger Girl’s response was measured. “I… suppose… that maybe we should have passed some kind of security gate. But I do this all the time. I just take whatever car I want and then my company pays for it.”

“Have you ever just driven a car out without talking to anyone?” There was a long pause.

“Maybe, possibly, not.”

“Should I call the rental agency?”

“If you want.” I called the rental agency. There were three options in the automated system. None of them corresponded to reporting a self-stolen car. So I pressed the third option.

“Blah-blah Car Rental, this is LaQueesha speaking.” I’m not making that up; it was her name.

“Yes, ah, I picked up a rental car from the airport and nobody asked me for any ID or had me sign anything.”

“Can I get the identifying number on the car?” I read it to her.

“Sir, I’m showing that car as being in our inventory.”

“Well, that’s because I drove it out and nobody stopped me.”

“Well, I am showing that we still have it.”

“Well, I,” I responded in somewhat irritated fashion, “am showing that it is driving down the 405.”

“What do you want me to do about that, sir?”

“Could you, I don’t know, maybe put it in your computer that it wasn’t stolen? That we’re bringing it back?”

“I’ll have to connect you to the rental office to do that.”

“Then connect me.” And the phone promptly bleeped to inform me that the other party had hung up.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Danger Girl said, “it’s a black Challenger, they won’t be looking for it.”

“Baby,” I whined in response, “cops like pulling over black Challengers so much they don’t even care which one it is!

“I don’t know what you’re moaning about. I’m the one driving, not you.”

“I’m an accomplice! Plus, this is California! They’ll arrest me for stare-raping you into doing it or something!”

“This thing’s pretty fast,” Danger Girl noted, as the speedometer swung past ’70’ on the four-lane surface street. “But I can’t see out of it at all.”

“Then why are you going so fast?”

“In case they’re looking for us.” I dialed the rental car company again. And got Omar. Who also hung up on me.

“Well, I want to have a drink,” Danger Girl exclaimed, “so I think we should give it to these valet people.”

* * *
In the morning, we fetched the Challenger back from the valet. There were no cops waiting to bust us. Having spent half of my life in imminent expectation that either the police or the film crew from “Cheaters” would appear around the next corner, I didn’t truly relax until we were away from the hotel and back on the freeway, where Danger Girl accelerated to a steady eighty-in-a-fifty-five.

“You cannot,” I explained, as if to a child, “operate a stolen car with this degree of recklessness.”

“Hey!” she exclaimed. “It’s another Challenger just like us!” And in truth I’d seen four black rental V6 Challys that day already.

chally2

This one was being driven by a Hispanic fellow with a face tattoo. I instructed DG to stick close to him as we traveled to the parking garage where my car was stored, figuring that the LAPD, given the choice between pulling over a blonde girl in a North Face jacket or a Mexican with a face tattoo, would choose the latter, even if the license plate on the APB matched the former.

We retrieved my car without difficulty and Danger Girl had an idea. “Hey. There’s an airport here, too,” she said, with the same kind of wonder a child might display while playing SimCity. “Let’s leave the car at the rental office.” We pulled up in convoy and she drove in without me. Two young black women awaited her.

“Girls,” DG chirped, “this car is from another airport. They just let me take it. I’m giving it back.”

You just took it!” responded the lot attendants, in tuneful unison. I could read their minds from a distance. This is what these blonde bitches get up to! They steal cars! And don’t nobody stop them!

“I just took it!” DG responded. “Would you like it back?”

“Well,” one of the attendants responded, scanning it half-heartedly, “It don’t be showing up in the system.”

“So,” DG prompted, “it’s like this never happened! Do I have to pay you anything?”

“I guess not,” the taller of the two replied.

“Well then. Goodbye!”

“Goodbye!” the lot girls said, again in tuneful unison. DG hopped into the passenger seat of my car. Behind her, I could hear one attendant say to the other,

“She just took the car.”

“Surely,” I opined, as the three-cylinder engine roared to life behind me and we pulled away, “there will be consequences for this.” And yet there were not.

THE END.

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Greetings From Belle Isle: Crashed Camaros and Brakeless Bimmers http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/greetings-belle-isle-crashed-camaros-brakeless-bimmers/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/greetings-belle-isle-crashed-camaros-brakeless-bimmers/#comments Sat, 23 May 2015 15:06:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1073698 Chances are if you have an Internet connection and even a passing interest in automobiles, you’ve heard about the “Jalopnik Camaro crash.” If not, here’s a quick catch-up: Patrick George, who covers a variety of topics for Gawker’s cars-and-planes-and-wow-just-wow blog, managed to understeer his way out of a lead-follow pace lap at Detroit’s Belle Isle […]

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Chances are if you have an Internet connection and even a passing interest in automobiles, you’ve heard about the “Jalopnik Camaro crash.” If not, here’s a quick catch-up: Patrick George, who covers a variety of topics for Gawker’s cars-and-planes-and-wow-just-wow blog, managed to understeer his way out of a lead-follow pace lap at Detroit’s Belle Isle Grand Prix course and into a wall. Damage to the car was relatively minor. He was then removed from the event by GM security, in marked contrast to the kid-glove treatment given About.com writer and part-time The Onion-wannabe Aaron Gold after Mr. Gold managed to put a Camaro ZL1 in the tire wall at VIR for no reason whatsoever.

The veritable blizzard of publicity for both Jalopnik and GM in the week that followed has caused some of the more jaded observers of the autojourno game to wonder if perhaps the whole thing isn’t a masterstroke of guerilla marketing. I have to admit I had my own doubts as to the authenticity of the incident, doubts that have not been completely erased by discussions with Patrick and other members of the Jalop staff.

After watching the video a few times, however, I’ve come to believe that it’s probably genuine. I’ve also come to believe that many of Patrick’s harshest critics on YouTube and elsewhere might have found themselves “in the wall” given the same set of circumstances. So if you want to know what Patrick did wrong, why the incident unfolded as it did, and how it relates to an off-track incident I witnessed myself the day before Patrick’s crash, then click the jump and I’ll explain it all!

If you haven’t already watched the Jalopnik video, please do so now – and also, please watch the video above featuring a BMW driver who just can’t seem to remember to use his brakes. The second video was taken by the Performance Data Recorder (PDR) in a 2015 Corvette Z51 I was driving around Summit Point’s Shenandoah circuit last Saturday. In many ways, it’s the same incident seen two different ways. In both cases, the driver fails to slow down enough and then exits the track surface at an angle. The primary differences between Patrick’s video and mine are the Belle Isle circuit is surrounded by walls, and the M3 is going much faster.

What I’d like to suggest is that the cause for both incidents was the same. That cause was what I like to call the “out of bandwidth problem”. This is not to be confused with Iain Banks’ Outside Context Problem. Rather, it’s a product of the way the human mind works.

I frequently tell my driving students they can really only learn one thing per instructional session. They can also really only focus on one problem in any given session. To show you why, I’ll give you an exercise you can do at home, slightly modified from an exercise given to me by Ross Bentley in a driver-coaching class and also demonstrated in his book, Inner Speed Secrets.

Sitting at your desk, take your right hand and place it on your left knee briefly before removing it. At the same time, raise your left leg off the chair a few inches to meet your hand. Then do the same thing with your left hand and your right knee. Then return to the right hand and left knee. Try to do that in rhythm for a moment. Got it? Now, while continuing your alternating hand-and-knee motion, start counting backwards from 100 while you do it. Still good?

Now try counting backwards from 100 in increments of seven.

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I’ve never had a student who could do it on the first try without some problem. Usually, they say, “100… uh… 93… uh… um…” After they struggle for a few minutes, I show them I can do it effortlessly. I’m not the most graceful or elegant individual, so this is confusing. I then explain I’ve memorized the numbers. 100 – 93 – 86 – 79 – 72 – 65. I’m not doing the math in real time, I’m reciting a memorized series of numbers I already know.

The brain is very good at doing several things at once, as long as all those things are familiar to it. That’s why older drivers aren’t as likely to crash while texting or eating or operating the infotainment system. They have more experience with the primary task (driving) and therefore they have plenty of processing power for secondary tasks.

By contrast, how often have you been on the phone with someone who is driving somewhere and is lost? What does that conversation sound like? There are usually a lot of pauses as the person tries to compute new directions or evaluate their surroundings. “So, I was… uh… talking to Bob, and… uh… he said that the numbers look good but… uh, hold on, I just want to see if this is my turn.” Talking to someone during their daily commute is very different. We all know our daily commute very well, often to the point that we don’t quite remember how we got to the end of it. It’s all handled by subconscious routines.

Those of you who have been on a racetrack before probably remember just how confusing your first time was. There was so much to look at, so many new rules, and so many cars that seemed to appear out of nowhere behind you. To make things worse, your car didn’t behave the way you expected it to, because it was being operated at a much higher speed. This is why I make my novices stay in fourth gear for their first few sessions, and why I “take the mirror away” by adjusting all mirrors so that I, not the student, watch for traffic. Doing so reduces the number of things on which the student has to focus, and allows him to have more success doing the limited number of tasks remaining. When he can remember the layout of the track, and when he has learned the basics of looking around him in this new environment, I’ll let him start shifting before corners, and I’ll let him use his own mirrors – but not until he’s mastered those other tasks.

Sensory Overload

Human beings have a limited ability to process new information and perform new tasks in real time. It’s a bandwidth problem. You can only focus on a certain amount of sensory data. If a small part of that data is unfamiliar – say, a new car on a well-known track – you can deal with that new data. If you have more than that – a new car, on a new track, with traffic around you – then you have a problem. No matter how experienced you are. You still have a problem. Even Formula One drivers often experience difficulty performing at their best at a new track and developing new features of a car at the same time.

In the case of the BMW who went off-track ahead of me, it turns out that he was “driving his mirrors”. He’d been holding me up for nearly an entire lap and I’d been flashing my headlights at him. Instead of letting me by, his ego got involved – That’s some bearded hick in a Corvette! – and he decided to try to stay ahead of me and win the trackday. Therefore, his entire attention going into that hairpin turn was focused behind him, on me. How close was I? Was I going to try a pass? Was I going to tailgate him? He was so busy watching me that his mind had no bandwidth left. Therefore, faced with the necessity of slowing down for the corner, his mind chose the more familiar program – let’s call it Street Braking – instead of the unfamiliar program of Track Braking. In his effort to watch me, he underbraked and drove off the track into the dirt.

Had he been a more experienced driver, with some racing time under his belt, he would have been better able to multi-task between the challenges of operating the car at its limit and watching my position. But although he was a “black group” advanced driver, he still did not have a lot of experience running nose-to-tail at over 100 mph, so he ran out of processing power and had an incident. This sort of thing is monotonously common at open-lapping days, by the way.

What about Patrick? He’s an experienced track rat by media standards, with dozens of lapping days and events to his credit. But listen to his voice as he talks to the camera. Do you hear the bandwidth shortage? In the “uh” and the pauses? What’s going on? It’s as simple as this: he was trying to do all of the following:

  • Operate an unfamiliar car
  • On an unfamiliar course
  • While evaluating that car in the context of its predecessor
  • And describing it to the camera

That’s too much to ask out of nearly anyone. I’ve done it myself, and it’s mentally exhausting. To make things worse, our expectations for in-car videos are set by the scripted, high-budget Top Gear episodes where the actors recite a couple of well-rehearsed lines to their cameramen, interspersed with footage of professional drivers. So Patrick is under pressure to make a one-take video sound as polished and insightful as a million-dollar television episode.

No wonder he can’t focus on the proper line, or he fails to listen to what the car is trying to tell him about available grip. Those two tasks require bandwidth he doesn’t have. By the time the incident starts, he’s already mentally maxed-out.

The YouTube commenters on this particular video like to focus on the fact that Patrick has his arms crossed. That’s the one thing that he does right on his way to the wall. His consistent hand positioning is the sign of a driver who has received some training at least. But let’s analyze the final moments of the crash for a second. He could have avoided the incident by doing one of two things:

  • Reducing steering input and braking input, allowing the car to steer out of the situation
  • Unwinding the wheel to straight and engaging ABS at full strength.

Either would have been okay. The proximate cause of the accident is that Patrick reacted to a loss of steering traction by winding on more steering – first to the limits of his crossed arms, then further by shuffling – while also braking. This overloaded the front wheels. A more experienced driver would have reduced steering and brake pressure and searched for grip. That’s the process that a race driver goes through in every turn: trail-braking until the maximum cornering grip is achieved. When my students make Patrick’s mistake, I reach over and unwind their steering until the car grips and we make it through the turn correctly.

But Patrick had no instructor – he had a cameraman and an assignment to discuss the vehicle with that cameraman. That was the ultimate cause of the incident: bandwidth overload. Too many tasks. In a conversation with me, Patrick readily identified that as the problem, with no prompting from me. I doubt he’ll do it again.

And in the long run, it was harmless. Nobody was hurt. The car that received damage would have been crushed eventually anyway. There was plenty of publicity to go around and everybody will make money as a result. So if a car crash hurts nobody and benefits everyone involved, is it really a car crash? Process that for a moment, why don’t you?

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Trackday Diaries: Civics Lesson http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/trackday-diaries-civics-lesson/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/trackday-diaries-civics-lesson/#comments Tue, 19 May 2015 12:00:45 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1070562 Trust me on this: You will start your trackday career because you love cars, but if you are any good at it you will end up hating cars. Allow me to explain. I took my first lap around a racetrack (Mosport, back in 2001) because I wanted to eventually race wheel-to-wheel and I knew I’d […]

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Trust me on this: You will start your trackday career because you love cars, but if you are any good at it you will end up hating cars.

Allow me to explain.


I took my first lap around a racetrack (Mosport, back in 2001) because I wanted to eventually race wheel-to-wheel and I knew I’d have the greatest chance of success if I followed a defined path of individual coaching and patient but consistent escalation of speed and and risk. I wanted to race wheel-to-wheel because I’d had a series of injuries that had effectively murdered any chance I had of racing BMX competitively into my thirties. In that respect, I was unlike the vast majority of the people I’ve met at the over two hundred open-lapping days I’ve attended since then. Every once in a while I will get a student who is focused on a future in club racing and/or LeMons-style enduros, but most of my guys (and girls) don’t want to have anything to do with racing.

The typical “track rat” is, first and foremost, a car enthusiast, not a would-be racer. He’s there because he wants to drive his car as fast as possible. Very few of them drive an entirely stock vehicle; whether it’s swaybars, a turbo kit, or an engine swap, there’s usually something going on with their cars. But even the stock ones are fast. Lots of five-liter Mustangs, boosted Volkswagens, cambered-out Z-cars. They’re knowledgeable about the history of their preferred marques and nameplates. They can speak at length about everything from options codes to the differences between various manufacturing locations. They own a lot of T-shirts from Blipshift and various car clubs and tuner shops.

17-Racing_Vans_In_24_Hours_of_LeMons

By and large, they’re nice people, and most of them will enjoy their time on-track, but it’s important for me to remember that their goals are fundamentally different from the goals I had when I started – and the goals I have today. For me, the car was, and is, secondary to the purpose of racing. If auto racing didn’t exist, I’d be racing something else. I’ve been racing something for three-quarters of my life. I continue to attend open-lapping days and coach students because it makes me a better driver and therefore a better racer. The more seat time I have, the better I get. Even seat time as a passenger helps; it makes me think about how to get around a track better.

My students, on the other hand, primarily want to enjoy their cars in an environment without speed limits or oncoming traffic or SUVs. They want to take endless GoPro videos and bench race at lunch and maybe experience a moment where the car is sliding around on its tires a little bit. If they were transported back in time and found themselves in a situation where the only trackday opportunity involved forty-eight-horsepower MG TCs around a narrow track like the old Waterford Hills at an average speed below that of their commute, they wouldn’t bother to leave the house. Most of them would rather drive a Z06 Corvette at four-tenths the limit than run a Daihatsu Charade around just as fast as Lewis Hamilton could do it.

This fundamental disconnect between me and them causes friction more often that it does not. I ask them to go home and read a Ross Bentley book; they go home and buy a new ECU that promises ten more horsepower. I suggest they watch track videos and learn reference points; they log onto their favorite car forums and argue about option packages. When I ask them to attend additional weekends to get faster, they stay at home and do entire seasons of iRacing or, G-d forbid, Grand Theft Auto.

In short, they treat being the owners of performance cars the way I treat being a guitar player. I’d rather work extra hours to buy a new (insert name of exotic wood instrument here) than stay at home and practice the modes and scales. I’d rather visit vintage musical-equipment stores and argue about “Murphy aging” than memorize jazz standards in Nashville-number notation. Most of all, I’d rather shop for guitars than fix the ones I already have.

Whenever I start to become frustrated with my students, I just remind myself how my guitar teacher(s) must feel, and it really helps me put things in perspective. They love cars more than they love driving; I love my Paul Reed Smiths more than I love creaking through a twelve-bar-blues with one of them.

This past weekend, however, I was lucky enough to have two of my favorite students return for the Trackdaze season opener at Summit Point Shenandoah. My novice student was Benny Blanco, now resembling a Platoon-era Willem Dafoe due to a program of exercise and nutrition, cheerfully reporting a complete brake-system service on his Boxster in preparation for the event. My intermediate student was a TTAC reader and occasional contributor who had swapped out his rental car for his own high-mileage 2008 Civic EX 5-speed, fortified with Akebono pads and rotors. We met at the hotel Friday night and discussed goals a bit. I was pleased to see that they’d both been devoting some time to the theory of performance driving over the winter, although neither had driven on-track since last October.

While there were three car-into-wall incidents before lunchtime on Saturday, none of them involved my guys. They were both fast and smooth, if a bit rusty from the time off. By Sunday morning, they were both very quick, and by Sunday afternoon neither one of them required much input from me other than the occasional reminder to stay off the throttle in the midcorner. It was a true pleasure to see how well they both did and how much improvement they were able to demonstrate over the course of four hours on-track.

Here’s the funny thing; although both of them were among the best students I’ve ever had, they spent much of the weekend letting faster traffic by. Time after time, my student in the Civic would get through three or four corners in a row in a manner that wouldn’t disgrace a good mid-pack club racer, only to have to put his hand out for a far less talented driver behind the wheel of a turbo VW or V8-powered roadster. In the “green group”, Benny strung together four kick-ass laps, gapping the new-gen WRX behind him at each corner exit, only to have the blue Subaru eventually pull out and pass him on the main straight from ten car lengths back.

I knew going into the weekend that our 2008 Civic would be painfully slow, even if it could be coaxed into some oddly heroic slip angles in my hands, with the help of the emergency brake. (See above.) But I wasn’t prepared for just how slow a 1997 Boxster is nowadays. True, Porsche never claimed it was terribly quick, and buying an entry-level model from Zuffenhausen has never been a recipe for massive horsepower, but when a VW Beetle (with a VR6) can drop you like you’re towing a trailer, it really opens your eyes as to the progress in modern automobiles.

When Sunday drew to a close, I stood with my students and we watched people load perfectly street-legal Corvettes and Mustangs onto trailers pulled by Denalis and F-250s. “I got pretty sick of waving people by,” my Civic driver noted with resignation in his voice.

“Buy a new C7. Or a C7 Z06.” But what I wanted to say was this: I’d rather be the kind of truly skilled, talented, and dedicated trackday driver who can get the most out of a Civic than any mere owner of a high-performance automobile. And there are those of us who can watch someone go around a racetrack, even at a distance, and pick out the very few drivers among those owners. A true driver shines at a trackday like a polished nugget of gold in a field of anthracite. There are few satisfactions in the world like the one you have knowing that you extracted what Michael Schumacher used to call “today’s maximum” from an automobile.

Even if that car is a Civic, trundling down Shenandoah’s back straight at eighty-nine miles per hour.

For a true driver, a car is just a tool. And to operate that tool perfectly, only to be forced to yield again and again to people whose lap times come from the showroom instead of the woodshed…

It’s enough to make you hate cars, really.

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Cherokee, Sweetheart http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/cherokee-sweetheart/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/cherokee-sweetheart/#comments Thu, 14 May 2015 15:00:52 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1067874 “When I see a Range Rover on the street, my blood boils, because we should be able to do a thing like that,” quoth the great Sergio, “And we will.” Say what you like about the leadership Chrysler has had since the days of the AMC/Renault Alliance, but with this comment about the need for […]

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“When I see a Range Rover on the street, my blood boils, because we should be able to do a thing like that,” quoth the great Sergio, “And we will.” Say what you like about the leadership Chrysler has had since the days of the AMC/Renault Alliance, but with this comment about the need for a grander Cherokee, if you will, the maximum leader of FCA has shown that he understands the Jeep brand, and its role in America, less than any of his predecessors.


Bloomberg reported on Sergio’s comments at the opening of a Maserati dealership in Toronto last week. At first blush, the man from La Marchionne has a point. There’s a lot of profit to be had in Range Rovers, particularly nowadays. Hard not to look at that money and feel envious. Was it just yesterday that Range Rovers were priced closer to the Mercedes E-Class than the S-Class? And was it just yesterday that you could lease one for $599/month over thirty-six months with a grand out of pocket? Really, tell me it was just yesterday that the Range Rovers for sale in the local showroom came in just one variant, and that variant had been effectively the same vehicle for twenty years.

2016-Land-Rover-Range-Rover-SVAutobiography-106-876x535

No longer. Today’s Range Rover is a thoroughly developed luxury vehicle that bears only a vague resemblance to the country-estate runabouts of the distant English past. The nameplate that once carried noble-born English hounds to the hunt now takes Instagram “models” from the Dubai airport to the penthouses of the sheikhs. If any traditional landed gentry remains in Scotland, France, or the Black Forest, they aren’t buying new SVAutobiography LWB pimp-wagons. The current buyer base for full-sized Range Rovers is all new money, all the time, and unlike their predecessors they don’t pinch pennies or prefer vinyl seats. They have plenty of money.

What they lack, perhaps, is class. As with Aston Martin, Range Rover is in the business of selling some sort of fake Britishness to non-Brits. Those people associate Britishness with class, with social presence, with savoir faire. The people who buy these trucks expect them to convey a certain image, and they want that image to improve theirs. Look at it this way: When Lord Foppington of Stoke-On-Stoke took delivery of a two-door Rangie in ’78, he didn’t expect that people would be impressed by the vehicle. He expected people to be impressed by him. He expected that the prestige of the Range Rover would be lifted by his ownership and operation of one, not the other way around. The Land Rover advertisements of the Eighties and Nineties featured royal and ducal seals to take advantage of those associations. The Queen of England is still the Queen whether or not she gets out of a Range Rover or a Land Rover Series II or a Mini. When people who are not the Queen of England buy a Range Rover, it’s often done with the expectation that the vehicle will speak on their behalf in social situations.

Is there, or was there ever, an American equivalent to Land Rover’s “100-inch wagon”, a nondescript working-class vehicle operated by the upper crust? I think that for many years, the fully-loaded Ford or Chevrolet station wagon filled that role. The 1970 Chevy Kingswood was probably the American counterpart to the 1970 Rangie. It was a family vehicle for affluent families whose social position was utterly secure and therefore in no need of the middle-class status boost that would come from having, say, that new-fangled Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, essentially a Ninety-Eight with a rear door.

1978-jeep-wagoneer

When the station wagon disappeared, the Suburban and full-sized Wagoneer (later Grand Wagoneer) assumed that role, trolling slowly around Martha’s Vineyard and the Outer Banks, dirty and dented and full of picnic baskets. These were vehicles that could belong to that family with the home on the beach or the families of the plumbers and electricians who fixed those homes. They were truly classless, and as a result they were kind of classy because they didn’t attempt to send any particular Veblen message.

In the years that followed, the Wagoneer (later Grand Wagoneer) went out of production, and the Suburban became both oversized and overtly menacing in appearance. The Escalade and Yukon Denali appeared in the marketplace, both of them aimed at people who wanted to spend more money on a Suburban, and the sheer number of these monster trucks on the American road significantly diminished the appeal to the smart set of a full-sized SUV. Suburbans of all badges were much cooler when every soccer mom in Joliet, Illinois didn’t have one, dontcha know.

So what vehicle has assumed the title of America’s Classy Yet Classless Chariot? You know the answer without even thinking hard. It’s the Grand Cherokee. Not only is it a great SUV, it’s arguably the finest American car on sale today. Competent in all aspects, available as a vinyl-seat workhorse or a chrome-lined Overland or a racetrack-munching SRT-8, the Grand Cherokee has something for everyone. At the low end, it doesn’t cost much more than a six-cylinder Camry, while at the high end it rips twelve-second quarter-miles and features exotic interior appointments. While it’s generally obvious where each model sits in the overall hierarchy of Cherokee-dom, there’s nothing obviously poverty-stricken about the Laredo and there’s none of the “Autobiography” crassness to the Overland.

Few vehicles on sale today are as satisfying as the Grand Cherokee, and few of those can point to what is basically an unblemished record of being a good value and a decent ownership proposition since the Nineties. You can find them at Moab and in a country-club parking lot, on the beach at Venice and on the manicured lawns north of New York City. Owning a Grand Cherokee says almost nothing about you. You could be wealthy, or you could be someone in a small house with a decent-ish job. You could be single, or a parent, or a retiree. The appeal of this particular Jeep has virtually no boundaries.

Critical to the Grand Cherokee’s market positioning is the fact that it sits atop the Jeep hierarchy, even though you can spend less on a Laredo 4×2 than you’d pay for a loaded Cherokee or Wrangler. The reason the short-lived Commander was short-lived was twofold: it was a terrible vehicle to operate, and it was tough for people to understand that it was “better” than the GC. Everybody knows that you can spend a fair amount of money on an Overland, but everybody also knows that the prices of the Overland don’t reach into Range Rover ridiculousness. So buying an Overland is acceptable to wealthy Americans who follow the Protestant ethic because it has no superior in the lineup yet it doesn’t bespeak nouveau extravagance.

Adding a “Range Rover” to the Jeep range would alienate the customers for high-end Grand Cherokees, many of whom would be loath to purchase something that, like the RR Autobiography, is described as “very expensive” by its own manufacturers but at the same time would not want to be seen in a vehicle that was “junior” to it in the lineup. It would court the fickle tastes of Russian oligarchs and Arab oil money at the expense of Jeep’s loyal and dependable American customer base. But most of all, it would be an unforgivable slight against the very idea of Jeep.

“Jeep” is a contraction of “General Purpose”, or “GP”. The Jeep idea is that of a vehicle that earns its keep, that is valued for its capabilities, that shares the same work ethic as its customers. To take that name and plaster it on some despicable Lexus LX470 competitor would be a travesty. Such a vehicle wouldn’t be a GP. It would be an SP: a vehicle with the single purpose of demonstrating its owner’s wealth. We should leave stupidity like that to the Indians who own Range Rover, not the Italians who own Jeep. Classless, satisfying, tasteful, capable; the current Grand Cherokee is all of these things. Shouldn’t that be enough?

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No Fixed Abode: Return Of The King http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/no-fixed-abode-return-king/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/no-fixed-abode-return-king/#comments Tue, 12 May 2015 12:10:23 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1065490 So here we are, celebrating forty years of the “Dreier”, or 3-Series, depending on how Euro-wannabe you wannabe. Since I don’t wannabe, I’m going to call it “39 Years Of The 3 Series”. After all, we didn’t get the 320i in the United States until the 1977 model year. When it did arrive, it was […]

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So here we are, celebrating forty years of the “Dreier”, or 3-Series, depending on how Euro-wannabe you wannabe. Since I don’t wannabe, I’m going to call it “39 Years Of The 3 Series”. After all, we didn’t get the 320i in the United States until the 1977 model year. When it did arrive, it was a thermal-reacted boondoggle with a tendency to rust out from under the feet of the unlucky first owners.

Although it looked like a million bucks, particularly in “S” trim, and it was one of the dream cars of my pre-teen years, I cannot allow any of you Millennial readers out there to come to the mistaken belief that the E21, as adapted for the American market, was anything other than a shitbox with the lifespan of a fruit fly. It was also easy meat for a Rabbit GTI in any venue from the stoplight drag to the road course. It was, however, expensive, costing about as much as a base Cadillac Coupe de Ville, so at least it had that going for it. The most damning thing I can tell you about the 320i is this: I worked for David Hobbs BMW for much of 1988, and although the newest 320i was just five years old at that point, I never saw one come in for service, and we never took one in on trade.

The “E30″ 318i that appeared for the 1983 model year was a major improvement over its predecessor in everything from climate control to rust resistance, but it was “powered” by the same 103-horsepower, 1.8-liter, eight-valve four-cylinder that made the badge on the back of the 1980-1983 320i a comforting lie. I put “powered” in quotes because the E30 318i struggled to break the 18-second mark through the quarter-mile in an era where the Mustang and Camaro were in the low fifteens and even a 1981 Dodge Omni 024 “Charger 2.2″ could rip the mark in 17.2 seconds. That’s right: if you were in a brand-new BMW and a three-year-old Dodge Omni pulled up next to you at the light, the only thing that could save you from an ass-kicking would be a swift activation of the turn signal.

But then, one day about halfway through the first year of the 318i’s lukewarm tenure in North America, things changed.

The Three’s big brother, the E28 528e with its low-rev, 2.7-liter “eta” straight-six putting out just 127 horsepower, was a real whipping boy of the automotive media at the time. The spell cast by David E. Davis, Jr.’s infamous near-advertorial for the original 2002 had finally faded to the point where criticizing BMW became not only possible, but profitable. After all, there were plenty of would-be BMW competitors like the Pontiac 6000STE and Dodge Lancer out there, and there was a lot of magazine ad space to be filled. So the same press that had pretended not to notice the unique ability of Seventies Bimmers to go pop-crackle-BOOM fell all over themselves to attack the 528e.

 

By Cchan199206 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

1983 BMW 528e by Cchan199206 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

True, as far as sports sedans go, the eta-motored Five wasn’t very inspiring. It was the default transportation choice of realtors, yuppie wives, and financial-industry people with children. Pretty much everybody you see driving a Lexus RX350 nowadays would have driven a 528e back then. Some nontrivial percentage of them even took it with a stick, because the Eighties were an era where both men and women were still expected to know how to operate a “standard shift”. My mother had a clutch pedal in her car, as an example, until 2007, long after she was diagnosed with terminal sarcoidosis and well after her sixtieth birthday. Ships of wood, men of iron, you get the idea.

The problems with the 528e were all neatly solved by the arrival of the brilliant 533i and the even more brilliant 535i and the sublime 535is and the even more sublime E28 M5, which ushered in the kind of Golden Age at BMW that had previously only existed in the hyperbolic imaginations of autowriters and ad copywriters. The mere existence of the 533i had serious implications for 528e sales because it cost more and therefore was more attractive to realtors and yuppie wives and financial-industry people with children. This meant that production of the US-only eta motor wasn’t going to be as high as it had previously been, unless BMW could find another place for it.

 

BMW 325e by IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

BMW 325e by IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And thus we arrive at the 325e, which was introduced halfway through the 1984 model year as an upscale companion to the 318i. In addition to the 127-horse eta motor, the 325e had a lot of standard equipment and a leather interior in place of the vinyl found in its four-cylinder sibling. Car and Driver called it “smooth as a jet” and recorded a quarter-mile of 16.3@83mph. Finally, a Three that could at least nip at the heels of five-liter Mustangs.

More importantly, this was finally the 3-Series that delivered what the 320i had promised when it arrived seven and a half years before. It was luxurious, quiet, effortlessly rapid in traffic, and able to outhandle most of the competition. To drive a 325e in 1984 was to be at the apex of small German cars. You didn’t have to rev it to go quickly – hell, you couldn’t rev it, really. Just snap off shifts at the four-grand mark and watch everything around you disappear into the mirror. The same kind of easy torque that causes people to wax rhapsodic about diesels today was standard equipment thirty-one years ago in the eta-motored Three. It also marked a new seriousness on BMW’s part regarding the American market; there had been a six-cylinder variant of the E21 in Europe for nearly its entire lifetime, and the E30 had a 323i variant from Day One over there, but the company had never bothered to provide one for us.

The arrival of the 325i two years later, with its high-revving Euro-spec six, cemented BMW’s market position and enthusiast prestige for years to come. The four-cylinder variants that followed, the M3 and the sixteen-valve 318is, acquired devoted followings of their own, but it was the 325e and 325i that changed the image of the E30 from “gutless yuppie-mobile” to “legitimate sporting sedan”. These were the cars that formed the basis of BMWCCA racing for years and made the Spec E30 class a viable proposition.

From 1984 to 2012, the naturally-aspirated six-cylinder BMW Three of between 2.5 and 3.0 liter displacement was, to quote a thousand advertisements and editorials, the benchmark by which entry-level sports sedans were judged. It was a product of consistent and admirable excellence, a pleasure to drive and a privilege to own. There were often faster or more stylish options on the market, but none of them had the staying power of the Three.

The first lap I ever took around a racetrack was behind the wheel of my brand-new 330i Sport, as was the first flag I ever took as an autocrosser. During the year I worked for David Hobbs I drove plenty of eta-motored Threes, including a BBS-and-Bilstein-equipped 325es that shocked my teenaged self with its lateral grip and responsiveness. But the strongest memory I have of those cars was a rural day in Ohio back in the summer of 1989.

It was Orientation Day for parents and students at Miami University. My father’s schedule didn’t permit him to waste his time attending such an event, so he commanded that I attend it alone. When I protested that my red Marquis couldn’t possibly make the 117-mile trip to Oxford, Ohio, he handed over the keys to his black 325 and told me to return it at the end of the day.

It wasn’t a 325e, just a plain 325, the vinyl-interior model that replaced the 318i in 1986. No options, no gingerbread, just two doors, five speeds, and a fresh set of Michelins on the fourteen-inch alloys. Down Route 70, I stretched the Bimmer’s legs past 120mph and used the shoulder where I had to. I arrived at school about ninety minutes after leaving the house. Dad was right about the orientation; it was mostly hand-holding shit for kids terrified of the idea that they’d be living away from home. So at around two in the afternoon, I pointed the black BMW’s big chrome bumper out of town with the intent of beating my inbound time. Could I make 117 miles, some of it two-lane, in seventy-five minutes?

I chirped second leaving the last stoplight at Miami and never looked back. Up Route 127, the 2.7 stuttered against the rev limiter in third as I pulled across the double-yellow and blasted past the slow-moving tractor-trailers. When I pulled up in front of the house, the brakes were hot and the fuel tank was empty, and the little digital clock to the right of the tape player said 3:35. Not the 3:28 for which I’d hoped, and a few minutes above my target time. I told my friends, but they didn’t believe me. In 1989, that kind of pace was more the stuff of legends than anything else. And that was appropriate, because that squared-off coupe was, indeed, legendary in its own time, and to this day.

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2015 Toyota Prius, Track Tested Review http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/review-2015-toyota-prius-track-tested/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/review-2015-toyota-prius-track-tested/#comments Tue, 05 May 2015 12:00:39 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1060434 You may have heard about the challenge I laid down to Jalopnik’s Travis Okulski. You’re probably read about brother Bark’s experience at NJMP this past weekend. But if you haven’t, the story goes like so: A team of scrappy Midwesterners fought a bunch of Euro-weenies and high-net-worth individuals on the mean streets straights and curves […]

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2015 Toyota Prius Track Test

You may have heard about the challenge I laid down to Jalopnik’s Travis Okulski. You’re probably read about brother Bark’s experience at NJMP this past weekend. But if you haven’t, the story goes like so: A team of scrappy Midwesterners fought a bunch of Euro-weenies and high-net-worth individuals on the mean streets straights and curves of New Jersey. They endured fatigue, crippling expense, and hair-raising 100-mph off-track excursions to challenge their inner demons and define themselves.

This is not their story.

This is the story of the Prius they drove. Over 1,600 miles. From Ohio to New York to New Jersey to Philly and back to Ohio.

Plus fifteen laps on a racetrack.

2015 Toyota Prius Track Test

Stress and nervous tension are now serious social problems in all parts of the galaxy and it is in order that this situation should not be in any way exacerbated that the following facts will now be revealed in advance:

  • I thought the Prius was absolutely brilliant, and I’m going to give you ten reasons why.
  • I also thought the Prius was depressingly cheap and annoyingly outmoded, and I’m going to give you five reasons why.
  • My opinion about the Prius has been changed forever.
  • My opinion about the bulk of Prius owners remains unchanged.

Alright, let’s get to it. This is the TTAC of 2015, so instead of telling you a sordid tale about a bottle-blonde working girl named Natalya who stood next to me and told her date, “I’m worth the money” as I watched Mike Stern, Anthony Jackson, and Lionel Cordrew just kill it at 55 Bar in the Village last Wednesday night, we’re going to have a listicle.

Ten Reasons The 2015 Prius Is Absolutely Brilliant. Number Six Will Blow Your Mind.

1. No tumblehome. The sides of the third-generation Prius are actually concave. The side windows reach straight up from a surprisingly low doorsill to a squared-off meeting with the roof. This car feels hugely roomy and comfortable to me, more so than any other car with its footprint on sale today, and that’s why.

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2. Reasonable driver position. There’s plenty of room to be had between the door card and the floating console. The blank space ahead of you, where the instrument panel would be in, say, a Ferrari F12berlinetta, is grey plastic adorned with a “Synergy” waveform pattern that also appears in every glass divider in the lobby of every mid-price hotel in America. And maybe it’s because I’d driven a ’99 Camaro SS right before getting into the Prius, but the distance to the windshield base was positively reasonable.

3. The vision thing. There’s no “DLO Fail”, as our own Sajeev Mehta would say. The front quarter windows are useful for parking. The rear quarter windows have heating elements on them. Driver vision is clear and nearly unobstructed. And the rear double window in the hatch – holy fuck, man, when was the last time you drove a car that let you see the license plate of the car following you? This is the opposite of the face-down-ass-up thing that most modern sedans have. Love it.

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4. Uninvaded space. The Prius had room for three people, their luggage, their race equipment, and a carbon-fiber Rainsong jumbo on which I played “Ramble On” after practice on Friday. “Jesus,” my brother said, “make that stop.” The packaging just plain works for both people and luggage.

5. You can turn the DRLs off. Every car in the world should offer this feature. Combined with the “EV mode”, to be discussed shortly, this would make the world’s greatest night-time drive-by vehicle ever. Room for a Bulgarian AK-47 clone in the back? Check! The ability to roll silent? Check! No DRLs to alert your rivals? Check!

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6. The hybrid powertrain, as implemented in this car, is beyond reproach. From Columbus to Manhattan, the Prius returned about 51 mpg despite being asked to cruise at 80-90 mph. But it was on the road to Chinatown that I had my own road-to-Damascus moment. Exiting the Holland tunnel, I pressed the “EV mode” button. The engine didn’t turn on until we arrived at the hotel and had to wait for the valet. No fuss. No drama. Half an hour on the battery, stopping, starting, listening to Father John Misty on the crank-up. It would have been two gallons’ worth of gas in anything else.

What Toyota has done with this Prius is simply brilliant. You can watch the energy displays if you like, but you don’t need to. Only once was I caught out by the Synergy Drive; making a left turn onto a crowded four-lane, I pumped the throttle to sneak into a hole between two cars and was unexpectedly braked by the Toyota’s decision to cut the engine. That’s it. That was the only time I didn’t like the system in the space of 1,600 miles. I’m a believer.

7. The quiet aero. True, my current fleet of vehicles, containing two Porsches, two Honda motorcycles, and a car (the Honda Accord) which has been infamous for road noise since 1976, tends to damage my idea of what a quiet car is. Still. This Prius has less wind noise than anything else I’ve ever driven. You can have a reasonable conversation at 90 mph.

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8. The handling. Yeah, it’s on those low-roll Avids, which aren’t great. But when I took the Prius around New Jersey Motorsports Park’s Lightning course, the Prius was a capable and friendly partner. It can hit 96 mph on the front straight before recovering sixty watt-hours braking at the “4” mark. You can rotate it – wait, I’m laughing as I type – you can rotate it at turn entry on the Synergy Drive recovery mode of the brake pedal. No, it’s not fast, but it’s not undriveable. More importantly, the Prius ended its tour of the track with a firm brake pedal, no worrying heat smells, and two bars of battery left in reserve. Hey, it’s got two controversial F1 technologies: a CVT (hey, Williams!) and battery energy recovery (hey, every F1 team during KERS development except Williams!) The only caveat: The stability control doesn’t like high-G maneuvers at freeway speeds.

9. The air conditioning. Oh what a feeling, to sit in the Prius on a hot Jersey day and just let the battery run the A/C for you while the engine sleeps. Guilt-free motoring at its finest.

10. The stereo. Best cheap-car stereo I’ve heard in a while. The dynamics of it won’t cause my friends at Stereophile to pen any rapturous tributes but at least it’s loud enough for a 43-year-old man who has been deafened by years of unmuffled club racers and Benelli shotguns operated indoors.

After six days with the Prius, I was ready to buy one without question. Keep in mind that only the existence of my personal fleet would make such an idea palatable; I’m about as likely to buy a Chinese-made dress shirt as I am to make a car that can’t break 100 in the quarter my only vehicle. Still, for ninety-five percent of the driving that I do, the Prius makes more sense than anything else on the road. And trust me, after blasting out to the lead of a forty-one-car pack while the Bimmers behind you bang fenders loud enough for you to feel it in your chest, getting into a car that “turns on” with a beep is oddly comforting.

Of course, the Prius has problems, and here are five of them:

1. The dashboard is garbage. Forget the fact that it’s in the center. The displays themselves are a strange mixture of cheap monochrome LCD and monochrome segment LCD and backlit icons like you’d find on a God-damned ’79 Tercel. Every time you look at the display, you’re reminded of just how they found the money for the Toyota Synergy Drive in a $24,000 car. No Ford made after the Tempo looks this cheap inside.

2. The rest of the car is cheap, too. You can load these things up but my rental-spec “Prius One” lacked basic features such as a three-blink turn signal. It’s equipped like a base Accent despite costing half again as much. There’s no reason for it other than to push you upmarket to the five trim levels above. It’s exploitative and stupid in the best GM practice.

3. It also treats you like an idiot. Yes, we all know the kind of people who buy these things in droves: feckless, mouth-breathing Whole-Foods-shopping asexuals who treat the government like a surrogate parent and use phrases like “I’m not okay with that” and “Here’s why that’s a problem.” Some day it will be legal to cut those people down from horseback like a Dothraki, but in the meantime they have to be coddled by a car that BEEPS INSIDE WHEN YOU’RE BACKING UP. I know I’m backing up, damn it! I also don’t need the car to flash some tacky-ass additional display every time I touch the Volume button. I know I’m touching the Volume button, because I’m a functioning human. What’s worse: the “you’re-touching-a-button” display lights up when you touch the button, but you have to press the button more to get it to do anything.

4. The seats are fairly miserable. Front and back. They’re shaped oddly and made of mouse fur. Toyota knows how to make a great seat – the Lexus RC F that showed up at our race proves that. They just don’t give you one here.

5. It’s really slow. Yes, I know that’s part of the package. But I hate it. I don’t see why there isn’t some KERS-style maximum-discharge mode for when you really want to get up to that open spot in the lane next to you.

And that’s it.

A thousand miles in a Prius will make you a believer, as long as you understand what it is. It’s not a Swiss Army Knife, it’s not a Hellcat, it’s not a Tesla Model S. It’s the most intelligently-executed basic transportation since the Model T. As such, it lacks both surprise and delight. If you don’t like it, get an Accord V6.

The Prius is not brilliant because it’s a hybrid. By and large, hybrids suck and it doesn’t matter if you’re referring to the Highlander Hybrid or the Panamera Hybrid. The hybrid concept only works when you apply it to the Prius, the same way that a double-clutch transmission is racetrack magic in a McLaren 650S but utterly miserable in your commuting Fiesta. The Prius isn’t brilliant because it’s a hybrid. It’s brilliant because it is designed for a single purpose – efficient transportation – and the HS-Drive is a part of that design. A Prius without the battery would be a better commuter than an Elantra with one. But as a single, unified system, the standard Prius is flat fucking wonderful.

If only I didn’t feel dirty after driving it, like I’d been caught reading a Jezebel article about The Top Ten Ways Men Are Stare-Raping You At The Gym or something. I think I can fix that. If you’ll excuse me, I have a superbike that needs some conspicuous wheely-ing.

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No Fixed Abode: Fruit Flies Of The Marketplace http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/no-fixed-abode-fruit-flies-marketplace/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/no-fixed-abode-fruit-flies-marketplace/#comments Fri, 01 May 2015 11:30:24 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1054169 I don’t know what you’re doing with your weekend, but I’m spending mine driving a Prius from the Midwest to the East Coast. Next week I’ll tell you all about my experience with the car, but I’ll say this: it hasn’t been what I expected. Not that my opinion on the subject matters to Toyota; […]

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I don’t know what you’re doing with your weekend, but I’m spending mine driving a Prius from the Midwest to the East Coast. Next week I’ll tell you all about my experience with the car, but I’ll say this: it hasn’t been what I expected. Not that my opinion on the subject matters to Toyota; I’m not a customer for a Prius or a hybrid of any type and I am unlikely to become one until the last car that can beat a Prius around a racetrack enters the loving jaws of the Crusher.

Existing hybrid owners, on the other hand, are near and dear to Toyota’s heart. Unfortunately, that affection is being returned in smaller and smaller doses.

It’s the kind of headline that generates clicks the way a Prius going down a hill generates battery power: Gas price fallout: People trading in hybrids for SUVs. And the facts, in this case, justify the hype:

So far this year, only 45% of people that traded in an environmentally-friendly hybrid car purchased another, according statisticians at Edmunds.com. In 2012, that figure was over 60% and this is the first time it has ever fallen below 50%…

Back in 2012, gas prices peaked at $4.67 a gallon. At that price, it would take five years for owners of a hybrid-powered Toyota (TM) Camry to make up for the $3,770 price differential with the brand’s gasoline-powered model. But with today’s gas prices at $2.27 a gallon, it would take about 11 years.

Admit it, your first reaction to the above was, “How stupid can people be? Do they think cheap gasoline will last forever?” That was certainly my reaction. Although many of the B&B picture me as being just to the right of Attila the Hun, I’m a bit of a closet progressive at times and the image my Brooklyn-born brain conjured up when I read the above was an endless line of fat Walmartians trading in their Hy-Higlanders for Yukon XLs while smugly telling their neighbors, “I reckon gas is gonna be cheap forevah.” It’s the kind of image that is thoroughly satisfying for anybody who enjoys thinking of themselves as smarter than the average American. After all, I would never be that stupid, and neither would you, right?

But what if those stupid hicks who can’t wait to get rid of their hybrids are actually pretty good at doing real-world math? After all, using the Camry analogy provided by CNN, even when fuel is close to five bucks a gallon, you’re still looking at five years to the breakeven point. That’s longer than a lot of people keep their vehicles, so if you’re going to keep your Camry for three years and you don’t think fuel will swing past five or six dollars a gallon there’s probably no point.

The problem with that Camry analogy, however, is the standard Camry four-cylinder gets outstanding gas mileage. Very few cars sold in this country are as good as a four-cylinder Camry at conserving fuel on the move. Are buyers really just trading in Camry Hybrids for Camrys, or are they moving to larger SUVs? That’s not something we can know without access to additional data, and it’s not a conclusion that’s directly supported by the CNN article.

What if that is the case, however? Let’s do a few moments’ worth of math, based on the idea of a 15,000-mile year.

Prius (50mpg) v $2.50 = $750/year
Tahoe (16mpg) v $2.50 = $2,343/year
Prius v $4.00 = $1,200/year
Tahoe v $4.00 = $3,750/year
Prius v $6.00 = $1,800/year
Tahoe v $6.00 = $5,625/year

I don’t think anybody expects gasoline to rise past six dollars a gallon in the next decade, assuming the world doesn’t erupt in flames.

With cheap gas, the Prius saves you $132 a month. With four-dollar gas, it’s $212.50. At six bucks, it’s $318.75. This is what I consider “real money” at all three amounts, but let’s put it in context by looking at how much extra car you could get if you put that same amount of money into paying a five year loan on a more expensive car.

At $2.50, you could afford to pay about seven grand more for your car if it has a Prius-Tahoe fuel advantage. At $4.00, it becomes eleven grand. At six bucks? Nearly seventeen thousand dollars. That, too, is real money. Since even the cheapest Tahoe costs twenty-two grand more than a base Prius, however, we can assume that our Prius-to-Tahoe people are ready to spend extra money to drive a Tahoe and that this additional fuel cost is just more money to burn. The math gets much more complicated when you start comparing fundamentally similar vehicles that are available in hybrid or conventional form. That’s the math that killed the Tahoe Hybrid and it’s the math that would kill it again were GM bold enough to bring it back.

After running about fifty more permutations of the above calculations, I’ve come to believe that people who trade in hybrid versions of Highlanders and Altimas for conventional versions are probably making a solid mathematical bet. And I’ve also come to believe that if you trade in a Prius for a Tahoe you’re going to take it in the shorts no matter what fuel costs are, said shorts-taking still being less than the additional amount you’re paying to drive a much more expensive vehicle in the first place. So our putative hybrid-traders are neither stupid nor bad at math, no matter how you slice it.

No, I think the lesson of the numbers is something else entirely. While looking at my fuel-economy spreadsheet, I kept thinking back to my Audi S5. Driven with some spirit, it had an 18-mpg appetite for fuel. Its supercharged replacement might fool the EPA but it doesn’t do much better in the real world. Nor do all the turbo near-luxury and luxury cars the Germans want you to buy. Pretty much anything that will arouse envy in your neighbors nowadays is also unlikely to do significantly better than 20mpg in the real world of mixed-use commuting and daily operation.

That means five thousand dollars a year or more to keep the tank full as fuel costs rise. Which they will. There is no way around it. If you think gasoline will be two dollars a gallon in the year 2035, you are either a drooling moron or the super-genius who will invent cold fusion and make petrol irrelevant for all but the most committed and particular of motorists.

Five grand a year is twenty-five grand in five years. So when I ask myself, “How much will people pay for the electric version of today’s luxury cars?” I now have a solid answer. And I have a second answer to a different question. The question is: “When will electric cars outsell gasoline-powered cars in the American marketplace?” The answer?

“Not as long from now as you think.”

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TTAC’s Greatest Hits: The Ephemeral Nature Of Luxury http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/03/ttacs-greatest-hits-ephemeral-nature-luxury/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/03/ttacs-greatest-hits-ephemeral-nature-luxury/#comments Mon, 09 Mar 2015 21:29:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1019034 The announcement of the Apple Watch caused a resurgent interest in Jack’s piece on luxury watches, luxury cars and the disposable nature of both. Although the article is over two years old, it’s gained a new life with today’s news. Check it out here.

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The announcement of the Apple Watch caused a resurgent interest in Jack’s piece on luxury watches, luxury cars and the disposable nature of both. Although the article is over two years old, it’s gained a new life with today’s news. Check it out here.

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No Fixed Abode: You gotta be rich to own a cheap car. http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/02/no-fixed-abode-gotta-rich-cheap-car/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/02/no-fixed-abode-gotta-rich-cheap-car/#comments Wed, 04 Feb 2015 16:00:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=993330 If you’re a fan of automotive personality Matt Farah and/or his show, “The Smoking Tire”, you probably know that Matt recently bought a 1996 Lexus LS400 with 897,000 documented miles on the clock. That’s right. Do not adjust your television. That’s nearly a million. You might also know that “The Driver”, Alex Roy, and I […]

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If you’re a fan of automotive personality Matt Farah and/or his show, “The Smoking Tire”, you probably know that Matt recently bought a 1996 Lexus LS400 with 897,000 documented miles on the clock. That’s right. Do not adjust your television. That’s nearly a million.

You might also know that “The Driver”, Alex Roy, and I took the Lexus from Long Beach to Texas and beyond, finally coming to a halt in my hometown of Powell, Ohio. If you’re really up to speed on the adventures of the Million Mile Lexus, you know that it’s currently in the hands of Jalopnik contributor “Tavarish”, who drove it from Upper Arlington, Ohio to New York.

Take a minute and read the above paragraph again. I drove it to Powell; Tavarish drove it from Upper Arlington. And thereby hangs a tale.


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My new friend “Tavarish” is well-known on Jalopnik for writing articles on used cars that manage to combine honest advice, shameless clickbaiting, and hurricane-force trollin’ in neatly-wrapped little packages. He’s a big fan of paying cash for old cars and being personally able to fix your own car no matter what, kind of like the TTAC reader whose response to Bark’s article on subprime buyers was to straight-facedly suggest that a working father swap his own minivan transmission in his apartment parking lot. If you check out Tavarish’s stuff, there’s a lot of “DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU CAN GET AN S65 AMG FOR THE PRICE OF A FORD FIESTA?” and whatnot.

Prior to meeting the guy I thought he was engaged in some elaborate Exit-Through-The-Gift-Shop hoax at the expense of the notoriously stupid Jalopnik commentariat. I mean, nobody really thinks it’s a good idea for someone with a $15,000 car budget to spend that money on a Maserati, right? Having worked on a few different sides of the car business for nearly a decade in my misspent youth, I believe that I have a thorough understanding of why people buy the cars they do — and I believe that the market is remarkably efficient when it comes to pricing used cars. Nearly-new Civics often sell for close to their original dealer invoice price because the risk of purchasing one is exceptionally low.

A Mercedes S65 AMG, on the other hand, can be had for one-tenth of the original MSRP because owning one past the warranty is an invitation to enter a Boschian nightmare — and I mean Robert Bosch, not Hieronymus Bosch. The number of ways in which you can spend fifteen or twenty grand in parts on one of those cars has to be experienced to be believed. Hell, even my R107 560SL, which should have been about as thoroughly debugged as a car design could possibly be, was chock-full of stuff that was NLA (no longer available) from dealers or the aftermarket but RFN (remarkably fucking necessary) to the vehicle’s satisfactory operation.

For that reason, I consider Tavarish’s “Hey College Students! You Should Consider A Six-Cylinder Jaguar XJR As A Right-Priced Alternative To A Honda Ruckus 50″ articles to be simply invitations to spend a pleasant evening strolling through eBay Motors. They’re fun to read, and they’re fun to write. They’re also a good way for him to demonstrate his talent to the audience. As many a would-be famous auto-blogger has found out, it’s tough to consistently churn out new content about cars if you don’t have much access to new cars. Most of the people who try to break into the business have enough personal experience for about five worthwhile articles. Maybe ten. After that you’re either making up stories about how you (insert ridiculous story here, leavened with enough self-deprecation to make it vaguely believable) or you’re second-guessing billion-dollar corporations on the strength of no education or business experience other than watching your helicopter dad bail out your West Coast lemonade stand. Compared to that stuff, telling people they can own a LaForza for the price of an ’06 CR-V is relatively harmless and entertaining.

Nonetheless, when I saw the steam exiting the LS400’s left headlamp on State Route 315 last Saturday morning, I permitted a slight smile of satisfaction to appear on my lips. This would be a chance for Tavarish to eat his own dog food, so to speak. I’d been on my way to Tim Horton’s when the Million Mile Lexus decided to experience a temporary interruption in Toyota reliability. This was doubly ironic because I’d just driven the thing across the country, right into the teeth of a major Southwestern winter storm, without any mechanical issues besides an increasing reluctance on the part of the transmission to shift properly and a slug trail of oil drips stretching some 2,190 miles. I considered the trip a bit of a vindication of the Tavarish philosophy, actually. The Lexus has been serviced correctly since new, and Matt spent about $1,500 on preventative maintenance prior to my departure. A V-8 Toyota with all the stamps in the service book and a solid check-out by a respected mechanic? Every know-it-all on the Internet will tell you that such a car is as good as — nay, better than — a leased 2015 Ford Focus.

And so it had proven to be, right up to that moment. I pulled off the freeway and fancy-parked in an apartment complex. My breath froze in the air as I indulged in the time-honored masculine ritual of popping the hood and taking a look. Oh. Upper radiator hose popped off. Not a problem. That’s twenty bucks and ten minutes. Wait… there’s something in the hose. Oh, that’s the plastic tube to which the hose attached, fragmented and roasted.

It might have been possible to emergency-fix it by Dremeling the remaining part of the tube on the radiator smooth then reattaching the hose, but I knew that Tavarish would be driving it to New York and I didn’t want him to do it on a jury-rigged radiator. So I called home to get a ride, and I called Advance Auto Parts. Upper hose, lower hose (for good measure) and a new radiator for a Lexus LS400, plus a gallon of full-strength coolant? Just $197.56, and it would be available within five hours.

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Come Sunday morning, I picked Tavarish and his friend Al up at the bus station. We grabbed my Craftsman tool set and went to work. The two of them had the radiator swapped in less than an hour. It was no trouble whatsoever, even in twenty-degree winter weather. Nine hours later, they were safe and sound in New York. Clearly, this was further proof of the Tavarish philosophy, right? You pay cash for a well-maintained used car, and when problems come up you fix them yourself, and situations like this are only a minor bump in the road of financially-savvy used-car ownership.

Except.

There’s such a thing as “privilege”. If you read the Gawker sites you’ll hear about it all the time. Privilege is what allows rich white cisgender straight men to do whatever they want in this world while everybody else takes it in the shorts. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Normally I consider the use of the word “privilege” in a conversation to be the brilliant peacock plumage that identifies a third-rate pseudo-intellectual from ten paces away, but in the Case Of The Million-Mile Lexus And Its Low-Stress Repair, there was a whole lotta privilege goin’ on. Let’s recap my experience and point it out:

  • I was on the way to see a friend when the radiator blew up. I wasn’t traveling to my second McJob where I’d be fired for being late. I don’t have jobs where you get fired for not punching a clock on time. Therefore, this didn’t affect my livelihood. Privilege!
  • My son wasn’t in the car with me, because I don’t have to take the risk of driving him around in a crappy old car. We use my Accord or my 993. The former is nearly new, the latter is in outstanding repair and has low mileage. However, were this not the case, I’d have been placed in a situation where my five-year-old boy would have been exposed to fifteen-degree temps, maybe by the side of a dark freeway somewhere. In reality, he was at home, playing Minecraft on his iPad. Privilege!
  • I was able to immediately call home and get a ride, because the other person living in my house doesn’t work weekends and has an expensive SUV that is available at a moment’s notice. Were I a single mother, I’d have been forced to call around until I found someone who had the time and ability to get me, while my children froze. Privilege!
  • Because I live in a decent neighborhood and drive in safe areas, I didn’t have to worry that my car would be towed or broken into while it was waiting for parts. Privilege!
  • I was able to put two hundred bucks on a credit card without planning in any way for this eventuality or taking the money out of my food budget. Had it been two thousand, I’d have been fine. Had it been twenty thousand… well, I’d have lit a match and burned Matt’s Lexus to the ground. But the important point was that I was financially capable of getting whatever parts the car needed. In the America of 2015, very few families can say the same. Privilege!
  • Tavarish and his friend are both skilled mechanics. They have an understanding of auto repair that cost them money and time and effort to acquire. Al, in fact, was a former Lamborghini tech. What’s that training worth? Do most poor people have it? Of course not, so they’d have had to pay to have the car towed ($100 at least) to a mechanic and have two billable hours put in (~$170 in Ohio, more elsewhere), raising the price of the repair to nearly five hundred bucks. Not us! We just fixed it, because we knew how. Also, I had a $400 toolbox available. Privilege!
  • The three of us had the time and the inclination to handle it. We weren’t responsible for children or parents or animals or anything, really. If it had taken all day… well, it would have taken all day, and nobody would have been any the worse off for it. Privilege!
  • Last but not least, I had the ability to just let the car sit. I didn’t need it for anything. It wasn’t the way I was going to make my rent money that month, it wasn’t the way I was going to get my child to the hospital. It was just a car that I was driving for fun. And that’s the biggest kind of Privilege! I can imagine.

On the Internet, everybody has a six-figure savings account and a seven-figure retirement account. Everybody pays cash for everything while simultaneously dumping massive amounts of money into investments. They’re all the Millionaires Next Door and they know more about money and investing and prudent decision-making than Warren Buffet and Sam Walton combined. In the real world, people are victimized by everything from economic downturns to poor decisions they made when they were too young to know any better. In the real world, most families are just getting by and the rainy-day money they’ve saved rarely measures up to the endless tide of rainy days.

For those families, a new-car payment is a burden — but it’s one they can predict and live with. It sucks to “throw away” $300 or $400 every month, but it’s never a surprise and in exchange they have freedom from surprises. They have freedom from the surprise of losing two days of work or being stuck with their children by the side of a fifteen-degree freeway all night or having to diagnose mechanical issues using a cellphone flash and whatever conventional wisdom their parents bothered to impart when they weren’t off doing their own thing. They know that every month they are exchanging a fixed sum of money for certainty and reliability.

Viewed from one perspective, this incident absolutely validated the cash-for-used-car-and-learn-to-fix-it mentality. Viewed from another perspective, it was a damning indictment of a philosophy that requires plenty of time and flexibility to make work. To own and run a million-mile Lexus, or any other car where the maintenance and repair is your sole responsibility, requires that you have time to deal with the breakdowns, resources to cover the gaps in your life when problems occur, and the ability to pay for and install anything from a radiator to a differential. Which means, when you think about it, that a million-mile Lexus is something that it perhaps wasn’t quite when it hit the showroom back in 1996.

It’s a luxury car.

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Oh, Chris Harris, You Brilliant Man http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/11/oh-chris-harris-brilliant-man/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/11/oh-chris-harris-brilliant-man/#comments Fri, 28 Nov 2014 22:33:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=953553 Everybody loves YouTube personality, gentleman racer, and autojourno-of-the-moment Chris Harris, and I mean everyone. I can still vividly recall a party I attended in New York earlier this year where a lady friend of mine saw Chris and exclaimed in a kind of hysteria that was no doubt aided by the Hendrix-esque combination of painkillers […]

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Everybody loves YouTube personality, gentleman racer, and autojourno-of-the-moment Chris Harris, and I mean everyone. I can still vividly recall a party I attended in New York earlier this year where a lady friend of mine saw Chris and exclaimed in a kind of hysteria that was no doubt aided by the Hendrix-esque combination of painkillers and alcohol she’d managed to swallow, “He’s just adorable!” She then proceeded to totter in his general direction. Since she was (is) six feet tall in her heels and Mr. Harris is about five foot five, this was quite terrifying to Mr. Harris and he promptly hid behind Matt Farah, which is always a solid place to hide.

Luckily for Chris, Travis Okulski happened to wander in at about that time and divert my companion’s high-volume attention. “IT’S TRAVIS! THE GUY WHO CRIED DURING THE PEPSI COMMMERCIAL!” What a night that was, dear readers. Did you know that the last time I started dating someone under five foot nine or so, the Deepwater Horizon was still functioning properly? We’re talking about an entire volleyball team’s worth of tall girls here. Anyway, back to Mr. Harris. He’s written something rather interesting on Jalopnik today, and I’m only feeling slightly smug about it.

Years from now, when the smoke of history clears, another name will be added to that list of designers who were capable of re-imagining the automobile. Born and raised in the American Midwest, Christopher Edward Bangle joined BMW with a rather singular goal in mind: to create what would be only the second major design direction in the company’s history. His complete and utter success in this task has permitted BMW to become a major player on the global stage; along the way, he rewrote the design language for the entire auto industry.

So I wrote in February of 2009 for Speed:Sport:Life, in a column that would later on appear on TTAC. (It’s also in — shhhh! — my book, which is coming out after Christmas some time, I hope.) That was nearly six years ago, but my then-controversial ideas are now being co-signed by more than a few people.

That’s fine with me, because I was right then about Bangle and I’m still right. Without Mr. Bangle and his new approach to vehicle surfacing, automotive styling would have struggled to this present day with the additional vehicle body height that is the primary characteristic of a “modern” automobile. Think of the original Ford Focus and its breadvan chic. That’s what every car would look like nowadays without flame surfacing. Tall, tippy, cheap, and not-so-cheerful. If you think the BMW X6 or Acura MDX is hideous now — as I certainly do — imagine the same vehicle with flat flanks.

So I was right. But if you’d rather hear Chris Harris say it, then see for yourself. Over to you, Mr. Dickinson:

 

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To Our Editor In Chief Pro Tempore: Get Well Soon http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/to-our-editor-in-chief-pro-tempore-get-well-soon/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/to-our-editor-in-chief-pro-tempore-get-well-soon/#comments Sun, 05 Jan 2014 16:21:23 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=692738 Our Editor in Chief pro tempore, Jack Baruth, was injured an automobile collision near Columbus Saturday. His injuries were serious but he is expected to make a full recovery. Last night, Jack posted the following to his Facebook page: This is Rumor Control. Involved in 40mph offset today on rural road. Wasn’t speeding, the other […]

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Our Editor in Chief pro tempore, Jack Baruth, was injured an automobile collision near Columbus Saturday. His injuries were serious but he is expected to make a full recovery. Last night, Jack posted the following to his Facebook page:

This is Rumor Control. Involved in 40mph offset today on rural road. Wasn’t speeding, the other car wasn’t speeding, we just hit some ice. My son’s fine. My partner is in the proverbial dire straits. I had spleen surgery and I’ve broken the stuff I broke in 1988 — minus the neck. 

 

In the meantime, all of his colleagues are keeping him in our thoughts and prayers, wishing for him to have a recovery as speedy as he is on the track.

Once again, Jack, all of us wish you a return to full health as soon as possible.

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QOTD: What Should We Rent Next? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/qotd-what-should-we-rent-next/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/qotd-what-should-we-rent-next/#comments Mon, 22 Jul 2013 15:52:22 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=496627 It’s no secret that over here at TTAC, we like to pay for it – at least when it comes to test cars. Sure, we do go to the press fleet frequently, but when time and budget allow, abusing our Hertz #1 Club Gold membership is a great way to get behind the wheel of […]

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It’s no secret that over here at TTAC, we like to pay for it – at least when it comes to test cars. Sure, we do go to the press fleet frequently, but when time and budget allow, abusing our Hertz #1 Club Gold membership is a great way to get behind the wheel of select automobiles.

For starters, press fleet vehicles tend to be heavily optioned variants of popular models, the kind that most shoppers would never drive off the lot. Rental cars, on the other hand, are typically “fleet specials”, with base powertrains and few options. If you’re lucky, you might wind up with an Impala LT instead of an LS, or a Camry Sport rather than the stripped-out LE model. They also live much harsher lives than press vehicles and tend to come with more miles on the clock, giving us a better idea of how the cars will hold up under harsh conditions.

Let us know what rental cars you’d like to see reviewed. While Jack is known for his reviews of straight up rental cars, I am not afraid of going to Zipcar to get impressions of vehicles that aren’t available in the fleet (or are off-limits to TTAC).

Let us know what you’d like to see in the comments.

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Review: 2013 Toyota Camry LE 2.5 At Nelson Ledges http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/review-2013-toyota-camry-le-2-5-at-nelson-ledges/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/review-2013-toyota-camry-le-2-5-at-nelson-ledges/#comments Fri, 05 Jul 2013 13:00:21 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=494251 Seven hundred and twenty bucks. Not much money by today’s standards. Won’t buy you an American-made Fender Strat or a Hickey-Freeman suit. Won’t quite buy you a 32GB iPad with a cellular connection. Maybe ten days’ worth of rent in one of those new Manhattan micro-units. In the America of 2013, $720 is chump change. […]

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Picture courtesy Jerusha Pfannenschmidt

Seven hundred and twenty bucks. Not much money by today’s standards. Won’t buy you an American-made Fender Strat or a Hickey-Freeman suit. Won’t quite buy you a 32GB iPad with a cellular connection. Maybe ten days’ worth of rent in one of those new Manhattan micro-units. In the America of 2013, $720 is chump change.

But if you’re in the market for a new family sedan, and you can come up with $720, you’ll be glad you did. Because that’s the difference in the price between the Camry SE, which is one of my favorite cars at the moment, and the Camry LE, which isn’t, not quite.

Picture courtesy Jerusha Pfannenschmidt

When I drove the Camry SE at Summit Point Shenandoah, I was impressed by the sedan’s suspension composure, on-track behavior, and outright speed. It was only a few seconds behind a Scion FR-S that was running at the same time in some capable hands. When I realized that I had another trackday scheduled and no super-awesome press car for said trackday, I asked the nice people at the rental counter for another Camry just like the one they’d given me before. Unfortunately for me, in the rental world a Camry is a Camry is a Camry. The Camry SE I had for Shenandoah and the Camry LE they gave me to take to Nelson Ledges occupy the same category in their systems.

Let’s start with the plain numbers. Car and Driver‘s staff managed to get a 1:22 out of an E36 M3 at Ledges a few years ago, and a 1:22.7 out of the Mercedes C43AMG. The Camry LE weighs about The C43 does, and about a hundred pounds more than the M3, but brings considerably less power to the table: 178 horsepower against the Bimmer’s 240 and Benzo’s 302. It stands to reason, therefore, that the Camry won’t be able to run with the Germans around Nelson Ledges. The Camry’s 205/65-16 all-season tires (your brand may vary; there’s no guarantee of a particular tire when you get your Camry. If you want a car where the tire is guaranteed, buy a Veyron) aren’t super-grippy, even by comparison to the 215/55-17 skins on the SE.

Last but not least, we loaded the Camry down with some extra people. One of the B&B suggested that the Camry had been burdened with 550lbs of passengers. Alas, the true number was closer to 725 pounds. Maybe a little more. I had a pretty big breakfast. So here’s a (not very quick) lap in the Camry around Ledges. Other than the groundhog we had to swerve around, this is about all I think you’re going to get out of a car like this around that track.

You could get a little bit of that nine-second gap to the M3 by emptying the passenger compartment of everyone but your humble author, or even swapping said humble author for someone lighter and possibly better-looking. You could get a little more by keeping the groundhogs off the track, an extra second or two by concentrating on the task at hand, and a final squeeze by spending the aforementioned $720 to upgrade to the Camry SE’s running gear. Which leads us to a comment from another member of the B&B:

It’s still bad advice to tell people that it’s worth buying this thing over massively better cars like the Accord, Mazda6, or Fusion.

The question becomes: why is the Camry worse? Well, not everybody is going to like the way it looks, although the Toyota’s square-shouldered new look inside and out reminds me of the late-Seventies GM A-body sedans, and that’s a good thing in my opinion. The Mazda6 and Fusion certainly have more distinct and interesting styling.

What about the measurable aspects? The Camry isn’t any more expensive than the competition, it’s extremely roomy, and in four-cylinder form it returns outstanding mileage, even on a racetrack. There’s a marked lack of surprise-and-delight compared to the Fusion in particular, but the Toyota’s resale value is almost certain to be outstanding no matter how long you keep it. You can’t make the case for the competition being massively better if you stick to the numbers.

The Camry falls down, if it does fall down, on the intangibles. It falls down because there’s a pervasive sense of cost-cutting throughout the vehicle. The final $720 that Toyota cuts out of the car to create an LE from an SE — or, if you choose to look at it the other way, the $720 that is added to the LE to make the SE — is particularly obvious. The steering wheel on the SE is outstanding; the LE’s wheel is dismal. The alloy wheels on the SE look vaguely upscale, but the LE features steel wheels with generic-looking plastic covers. The LE’s interior fabric is nothing special; based on what I saw when I picked up the rental, it doesn’t even resist spills and stains terribly well.

This is “thin product” in the modern style, but even if it doesn’t match up to the standards of that old mini-Lexus ’92 Camry it still beats the pants off its immediate predecessors. The stereo’s good and unlike the competition you get a full-color screen in the center stack even at the LE price point. It’s quiet, it rides well, and with the exception of the turn-it-off-with-your-knee cruise control, every potential road-tripping annoyance has been carefully engineered out of the driving experience.

I didn’t mention the old A-body GM car by accident. This Camry is just what that ’79 Malibu or Cutlass used to be. It’s steady, unspectacular, well-equipped, affordably priced. It looks decent on the road and your neighbors won’t laugh at you. Toyota understands the customers in this segment in the same way that Ford and GM no longer do, and the sales numbers reflect that. It’s a nearly perfect middle-class conveyance. It’s built in Kentucky so the buy-American crowd can rest easy.

The real difference between a ’79 Malibu and this Camry is the same difference that exists, in a much smaller degree, between the rest of the competition and the Camry: people trust this car to last a very long time and cost very little to operate. The autoblogosphere knows all about recent Toyota quality shortfalls and bushing-less CTS pedals and that sort of thing, but the average consumer is always operating a decade or more in the past when it comes to product perception. He thinks the Malibu is garbage and the Ford will fall apart and the Accord doesn’t really offer anything more and the Mazda6 doesn’t really exist. He has eyes and he can see that decade-old Camrys are all over the road, rust-free and looking decent.

The man on the street knows the Camry, likes the Camry, trusts the Camry. His Generation Y son-in-law thinks the Camry is a soulless piece of junk that deliberately refutes everything the enthusiast believes — but as you can see, the blocky-looking Toyota gets around a racetrack just fine. You could buy one as a track rat, really, enjoying 30mpg commutes to and from the weekends, filling the trunk with extra tires, relying on the car to last 200k and sell for about a third of what you paid for it.

You could do that, and I wouldn’t disagree with your choice. But if you do, you should do yourself a favor. Look under the bed, in the couch cushions, in your old savings account from high school — anywhere you need to, as long as you can find that extra seven hundred and twenty bucks. Because the SE is worth the extra money, every penny of it. It’s that rarest of things in modern America: a true bargain.

Photo courtesy Jerusha Pfannenschmidt.

Images courtesy Pfanntastic Photography

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Baruth On Reckless Driving, Part 3.8 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/baruth-on-reckless-driving-part-3-8/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/baruth-on-reckless-driving-part-3-8/#comments Mon, 01 Jul 2013 16:36:41 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=493895 Jack Baruth is no stranger to driving fast on public roads, and he’s not afraid to go public with his exploits. Over at Road & Track, our man JB reflects on some of his own mis-adventures while pondering the death of Giorgi Tvezadze, the Georgian fellow who became YouTube famous for his own dangerous driving […]

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Jack Baruth is no stranger to driving fast on public roads, and he’s not afraid to go public with his exploits. Over at Road & Track, our man JB reflects on some of his own mis-adventures while pondering the death of Giorgi Tvezadze, the Georgian fellow who became YouTube famous for his own dangerous driving stunts behind the wheel of a BMW E34 M5. As far as I’m concerned, a guy like this is better off dead. But Jack has a much more eloquent take on things, while managing to weave in references to Hume and DeNiro.

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I Flew Twelve Thousand Miles To Accidentally Meet My Biggest Fan http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/06/i-flew-twelve-thousand-miles-to-accidentally-meet-my-biggest-fan/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/06/i-flew-twelve-thousand-miles-to-accidentally-meet-my-biggest-fan/#comments Tue, 04 Jun 2013 18:25:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=490840 Devoted readers of my personal site, if any such individuals actually exist, know that I’m currently in Malaysia for the purpose of compromising the international dignity of the United States by acting like a member of the “Duck Dynasty” in a time-trial series. The past week’s been fairly intense, to put it mildly. (And if […]

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Picture courtesy the author.

Devoted readers of my personal site, if any such individuals actually exist, know that I’m currently in Malaysia for the purpose of compromising the international dignity of the United States by acting like a member of the “Duck Dynasty” in a time-trial series. The past week’s been fairly intense, to put it mildly. (And if I put it anything other than mildly, I couldn’t discuss it in a family-oriented publication like TTAC.) Today, however, I was visiting a few shops in Shah Alam, Selangor, to discuss a seat in the Sepang 1000KM Endurance Race and things got weird.

The car in the photo above is a lime green Audi A5 2.0T. I happened upon it by pure blind chance.

I want to repeat that, just for the record.

I flew a total of 12,700 air miles over the course of twenty-five hours, then drove four hours from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, then drove another hour to a cluster of obscure race shops in a corner of Selangor, Malaysia, and happened to drive right by this car. Occurrences like this make me strongly question my belief that the entire universe is ordered along logical principles.

Why is it so ZOMGAMAZING that I happened to find this car? Well… Long-time TTACers know that nearly three years ago, I sold my Audi Exclusive S5 in 1973 Porsche Lime Green. If you’ve forgotten the car, or never heard about it, here it is:

The Internet fame accorded to that particular car, the ease with which I sold it, and Audi’s passive-aggressive reluctance to even discuss doing another one for me all led me to believe that nobody had ever done anything quite like it before or since. It’s quite possible I’m wrong about that.

When I saw the A5, I immediately stopped my car, jumped out, and started photographing it. This led to an extremely unpleasant conversation with the proprietor of the garage, who told me I didn’t have the right to take pictures in a public street. My American sense of photographic freedom did not at any point intersect with his Malaysian sense of privacy. He wouldn’t tell me anything about the owner and he wouldn’t put me in touch with said owner. After a brief standoff, I agreed to leave but did not agree to delete the photograph.

What does the photograph tell us? Well, it’s a pre-facelift A5, and I’m guessing it’s a 2010 model. The interior is black, not brown. My quick impression was that the black roof was a vinyl decal. “Wraps” are a big deal in Malaysia — a few hours later, I had the chance to talk to the proprietor of a shop that wraps GT-Rs in brushed-metal foil — but I don’t believe this was a wrap. The car had the shine and depth of real paint.

Whether it’s factory paint is another matter, but I’m inclined to think it is, for this reason: it’s not Porsche Lime Green. Instead, it’s the “Viper Metallic Green” that was popular on the Euro-market Scirocco. When I started the order process for my Audi, this was the first color that was suggested to me, because it was already in the VAG paint bin. I insisted on the proper Lime Green and got it, but I can see how Audi might have steered subsequent punters to the metallic green. I don’t think it looks as good, but then again, I wouldn’t, would I?

Naturally, I am more or less dead certain that this car was inspired by mine. Perhaps the owner will see this and contact me to let me know. What are the chances, really, that I would just happen to fly and drive to the precise spot where the only other lime green Audi coupe in the world was sitting? It boggles the mind, it really does, and it piques the curiosity. If you’re the owner, holler at your boy here. I’d like to talk to you about the car — and I have a set of snow tires to sell you.

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Trackday Diaries: Couped up in the palace of the Snow Queen. http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/trackday-diaries-couped-up-in-the-palace-of-the-snow-queen/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/trackday-diaries-couped-up-in-the-palace-of-the-snow-queen/#comments Tue, 16 Apr 2013 17:10:46 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=484636 I sing the coupe eccentric; The doors of those I love engirth me, and I endure them; They will not let me park till I deal with them, wrestle with them; And do not ding them, and close them with solid sound unknown by Kia Soul. It wasn’t that long ago that I recorded my […]

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I sing the coupe eccentric;
The doors of those I love engirth me, and I endure them;
They will not let me park till I deal with them, wrestle with them;
And do not ding them, and close them with solid sound unknown by Kia Soul.

It wasn’t that long ago that I recorded my generally favorable opinion of the outgoing Nissan Altima during an impromptu trip to Nashville and parts south. That car was obsolete even as I was reviewing it, supplanted by a zoomy and flame-surfacey new sedan. As of yet, however, the corresponding new Altima coupe has only appeared in renderings and rumors. Therefore Nissan has returned the old two-door for a very limited 2013-model-year engagement. It’s available in one trim level (S), with one drivetrain (2.5 four-cylinder/CVT) and at a relatively steep price ($25,230).

As a child of the Seventies, I have a not inconsiderable attachment to the idee fixe of the mid-sized coupe. The Altima Coupe is the natural successor to the Cutlass Supremes and Monte Carlos that prowled the neighborhoods of my youth. For some time I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to rent a new one; that quest came to a successful conclusion when I stepped off the plane in Houston Friday night and found a 2013 Altima Coupe with just 1,400 miles in my assigned stall.

My purpose in making the trip was to compete in the third round of the Texas Rally Sport championship and to cover said event for a certain print magazine which can be readily found at your local airport bookstore. I know it can be found there because I’ve been there, surreptitiously signing copies of the April issue while pretending to leaf through them. “Don’t Stop Believin’! Your homeboy, JB II” is what I usually write, although sometimes due to the angle at which I have to hold the magazine to do this unobserved it looks like “Don’t Start Bleedin’! Your Homo Boy, JB ill”. Those will be the Billy Ripken Fleer cards of the year 2089, trust me.

My rental Altima was black inside and out and it still smelled new. As I backed it out, I noticed that rear visibility was not very good at all and that the mirrors seemed a little small. Over the course of the next few days, I would repeatedly reconfirm those findings, particularly while doing lane changes. The Altima’s mirrors simply don’t cover enough ground to make up for the C-pillar blind spot. Be careful. I kid you not. I haven’t “not seen” a car in the next lane since I was an indifferent teenager but on the Texas freeways with their wide disparities in closing speeds I nearly caused an accident two separate and distinct times, after which I learned to swivel my head in all directions before moving laterally as I used to with my similarly sail-paneled 1980 Marquis Brougham Coupe.

My personal motto regarding out-of-state travel was mostly stolen from Tony Montana and runs like so: “First you get the luggage, then you get the rental, then you get the women.” My luggage consisted of nothing besides my Impact! Carbon Air Draft, a toothbrush, three sets of underwear, and a pair of Angry Birds pajama pants identical in design to a pair owned and enjoyed by my son, so that was easy. The Altima firmly under my command, it was time to complete the third task, so I fired up the “Neverlost” GPS and entered in the address of the Snow Queen.

When I first met the Snow Queen, during some random race-related Texas trip, I was very much under the spell of another woman and she was very much under the spell of… nothing in particular, really. She doesn’t get emotional about men. She has what the psychologists call a flat affect and she has a truly improbable body, lean and muscular with a nice rack, hot to the touch. I quite like her and I flatter myself that she quite likes me and best of all I don’t foresee anybody getting terribly emotional about anything.

The Snow Queen was amused by the Altima, correctly guessing that it wasn’t a very expensive car. At the time I didn’t know much they were asking for the thing but now that I do I have to wonder if it isn’t overpriced by a few thousand bucks. The 2013 Accord EX has more equipment and a more upscale look both inside and out. It costs the same and you can have it with a manual transmission, if you’re so inclined. I’m of the opinion, however, that the Altima has the edge on looks, even with the dopey standard-equipment wheels and the lack of brightwork that’s part of the “S” trim level. I hate to say it, but I think it’s better-looking than the current Infiniti G Coupe, if not the original one, and the rear trunk detailing and Kamm tail are just plain nice. Inside, of course, it’s the same equipment as the sedan but the lower roof and repositioned seating make it far more intimate.

After a supremely indulgent two-hour dinner at the Pappas Bros Steakhouse I piloted the Altima back to the Snow Queen’s place. The Hertz nav is almost deliberately stupid, taking a solid three minutes to boot and refusing to automatically select the previous destination. If you start the car moving at any point before it’s fully awake, you can’t do anything with it until the next time you come to a halt. “This is, without a doubt, the worst fucking nav system ever,” I fumed.

“Why’d you buy it then, if you hate it so much?” my companion queried.

“I didn’t buy it. It’s part of the rental.”

“Are you sure?”

“IT SAYS ‘HERTZ’ ON IT!”

“That’s odd.”

“No it isn’t, because it comes from Hertz.”

“Oh… Are you going to tell your readers I said what I just said?”

She’s been a TTAC reader for a long time so she had some concerns about that. She was also unhappy about her proposed nickname, “Snow Queen”.

“Why do I have to be the Snow Queen?”

“I don’t know… you’re a little distant and very pale and well, you bought me a bottle of Snow Queen vodka.”

“It makes me sound frigid.”

“Aren’t you a little bit frigid? I mean, we’re in bed and we aren’t doing anything right now.”

“That’s because you’re wearing Angry Birds pajamas.”

“My son likes them! He has the same pair! We wear them together!”

“Is he here?” She had a solid point. In the end, she proved to be a good sport about everything, adjusting her schedule to meet my rallycrossing demands and even posing for a slightly risque photo at the “Twin Peaks” restaurant we went to the following night. I’ve included it in the gallery below if you’re interested. It’s almost work-safe most places.

Where were we? Oh, yes. The Altima Coupe. There’s something really upsetting about the ease with which the Japanese manufacturers have driven our domestic players off their home ground. This is a reasonably priced, lightly equipped, stylish-looking two-door version of an established sedan, made in Tennessee and available in a rental fleet near you. Back when the Snow Queen was a little flaxen-haired snow princess, the Americans owned that segment. Defined it. Created it. Sold a million units a year into it. And now the best “American” mid-sized sedan is built in Mexico and the prospect of a coupe version is slightly more distant than Alpha Centauri and this Nissan is more American than the American cars, it’s a 1974 Colonnade for modern times.

I swear to God it’s like the effing Descolada, you know? Ford and Chrysler and particularly feckless General Motors sit on the sideline, afraid to do a product like this, and Nissan cheerfully keeps the old car around just for hell of it because they have that kind of power, people will still buy the old coupe with the new sedan sitting next to it in dealerships. Honda Accord coupes prowl the freeways of the Midwest like angry doorstops, driven by secretaries and angry middle-aged dads and friendly old people, and GM’s answer is to suggest that somebody buy a Camaro that weighs five hundred pounds more and looks like a cartoon. Since when did Americans retreat from the Japanese? The answer is: 1941, then not for a long time, and then continuously.

But you aren’t thinking about that, and you aren’t thinking about the Snow Queen, stretched across her Stearns and Foster like a teenage boy’s dream rendered in hot flesh, awake and annoyed while I drunkenly snore away in my Angry Birds pants. You’re thinking about that Pinto. Alright, you win. It’s owned by a fellow named Drew, who is six foot nine and who bolted an aluminum race seat flat to the floor so he would fit in it. Cologne V-6. Factory three-speed auto. Diamond Racing wheels in a massive offset. Sounds like thunder on the move, goes sideways constantly, throws the front wheels into the air on a bumpy rally course. He offered me a chance to stick around after the event and drive it but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to reach the pedals and I wanted to get back to a second evening back in Houston without the interference of alcohol or Angry Birds, so there you go. Let’s meet the man and the car:

My connecting flight home was delayed, and I was tempted to be bitchy about it, but it’s hard to be unhappy sometimes, I tell you, no matter how hard I try. Great people, fascinating cars, beautiful women, turboprop commuters that sound like a B-25 to take me hither and thither and yon! What a life I lead in the summer! What a life I lead in the spring! And there’s more to come if I can stay upright and above ground. I’ll share all of it with you. Most of it, anyway. See you next time.

There's a better one than this, but it showed nipple. Picture courtesy the author. The man, the Pinto. Picture courtesy the author. I'd hit it. Like a PInto. Picture courtesy the author. Face to face, and back to back... Picture courtesy the author. Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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Meanwhile In Quebec http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/meanwhile-in-quebec/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/meanwhile-in-quebec/#comments Fri, 12 Apr 2013 12:00:54 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=484436 In the weeks to come, you will be treated to a set of racing tales to make the most ardent consumer of Schadenfreude blush. During the summer of 2012, I competed in the Canadian Touring Car Championship and the Grand-Am Total Performance Challenge, racing a B-Spec Mazda2 on both sides of the continent against some […]

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In the weeks to come, you will be treated to a set of racing tales to make the most ardent consumer of Schadenfreude blush.

During the summer of 2012, I competed in the Canadian Touring Car Championship and the Grand-Am Total Performance Challenge, racing a B-Spec Mazda2 on both sides of the continent against some of the most talented sedan-class drivers in North America. By turns, I experienced mechanical failure, ineptitude, bad luck, narrow avoidance of high-speed collisions, despair, defeat, fear, hope, joy, and finally mechanical failure again.

I won nothing and finished all three of my races either dead last by a margin best described as “considerable” or at the end of a tow chain. At one point in the process I actively considered quitting the sport entirely. At another point I was cheered by hundreds of people as I successfully made an almost impossibly bold move to catapult from worst to (nearly) first. I paid nine dollars for a Quarter Pounder in Mont-Tremblant, QC and nothing at all for a first-rate hotel room on the bay in Monterey, CA.

In short, it was the worst of times, it was the even more worst of times. But I learned quite a bit from the process and I’ll be sharing all of it with you. While I re-familiarize myself with my on-track data and sob heavy teardrops onto my well-worn laptop keyboard for a while, here’s something to keep you occupied and give you some insight into what you’ll read next: a practice lap of the Mont-Tremblant road course behind the wheel of the CTCC B-Spec Mazda2 Media Car. Note the speeds at which the Civics and BMWs close on me; it will become relevant later…

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Review: Toyota Sienna LE 2.7 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/review-toyota-sienna-le-2-7/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/review-toyota-sienna-le-2-7/#comments Thu, 04 Apr 2013 12:00:51 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=483489 Your humble author’s affection for the Pentastar-powered Chrysler minivans is relatively well-known within these electronic pages. In the interest of examining the so-called “alternatives”, however, I’ve been attempting to rent non-Chrysler minivans during my travels. A 36-hour unscheduled trip to San Francisco gave me a chance to do just that, deliberately walking past the six […]

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Your humble author’s affection for the Pentastar-powered Chrysler minivans is relatively well-known within these electronic pages. In the interest of examining the so-called “alternatives”, however, I’ve been attempting to rent non-Chrysler minivans during my travels. A 36-hour unscheduled trip to San Francisco gave me a chance to do just that, deliberately walking past the six Corvette droptops in the Hertz #1 Gold Choice spaces and picking up a Toyota Sienna. The things I do for you, dear readers! My appointment was a couple of hours inland, in Lodi, CA; the thought that I was pedaling a minivan away from the ocean when I could be driving a topless ‘Vette along it had me sobbing lightly behind my Prodesigns.

I was eventually able to screw my courage to the sticking-place, as it were, and get on with business. What follows is a 388-mile review of the Toyota Sienna LE, but there’s one little catch: if you want one just like my test vehicle, you’re out of luck.

For 2013, Toyota has discontinued availability of the 2.7-liter paint-shaker four-cylinder in the Sienna. As we’ll soon see, it won’t be missed by most potential buyers. All Siennas are now powered by the appears-in-just-about-everything Toyota 3.5-liter V-6. The equivalent 2013-model V-6 Sienna to the one I drove would cost you a whopping $30.980 plus the usual reprehensible Toyota-dealer stripe/tape/paint protection/frottage charges. That’s a full eight thousand bucks more than the Caravans I normally rent would cost before incentives. It also represents a considerable price increase over last year. The 2012-model-year four-banger Sienna I rented would only cost you $26,990, assuming you could find a time machine or a dealer with some overstock, and that about splits the difference between a Caravan SE and the current Sienna LE.

This generation Sienna acquired what John Updike would call “minor fame” as the chosen ride of a swaggering MILF, but the gap in desirability between the fully-loaded SE and this poverty-spec LE is apparent from two hundred feet away and becomes more so as you draw closer to the thing. Opening the door reveals an unpleasant sea of elephant-testicle polysomethinglene in a color best described as “dirty ivory”. The odd texture molded into the door panels can’t hide a series of waves and ripples seemingly baked into the plastic during manufacture. I was initially willing to attribute the warping to 31,600 miles in the California sun, but even where the tinted windows protected the plastic, there were visible finish imperfections. If Toyota was trying to channel the spirit of the original K-car-based minivans, they’ve done it; I remember similar defects all over the place in those ancient Voyagers. Of course, the current Caravan is well beyond that standard, and comparing it back to back with the Sienna the much cheaper Dodge comes off as the upscale contender.

While the Chrysler minivan’s dashboard has always been intended to mimic that of a traditional sedan as closely as possible, the Sienna goes the other way, splaying an array of oddly oversized controls over an asymmetrical plastic wave between driver and passenger. The climate controls are frankly ridiculous, particularly the fan control which uses two buttons and multiple LEDs to unsatisfactorily accomplish what’s done with a single knob in better cars. Blank panels are everywhere. This van doesn’t appear to have any features except cruise control. The steering wheel has no secondary buttons whatsoever. Perhaps the kindest thing one could say about the Sienna’s controls is that they would all be easy to operate using gloves. They’re also perhaps deliberately optimized for Toyota’s aging customer base. The Avalon’s like that, too; every button and knob in the thing appears to be designed for people suffering a combination of Alzheimer’s and loss of motor control. The 12-volt outlet is too close to the floor — this is one detail that the Sienna has in common with the Caravan. One bright spot: the stereo is actually pretty decent. My two current test tracks (“English House” by Fleet Foxes and “My Activator” by 100s) were easily capable of annoying pedestrians in the vicinity and, in the case of the latter song, earned me a knowing nod from a stunning chica working the Jack-in-the-Box drive-through.

While the Sienna has about the same mouse-fur bucket seat for the driver you get in the cheaper Chrysler minivans, the story is completely different for rear-seat passengers. Chrysler offers their outstanding Stow N Go seats as standard pretty much everywhere in the lineup. They work just like you’d expect, folding quickly into the floor without fuss and turning the Caravan into a very capable work van in the space of five minutes. The Sienna, on the other hand, has two very conventional and very large bench seats in back. They’re well-bolstered and, for this writer at least, are usefully more comfortable than the Stow N Go. If you never expect to do anything with your minivan besides drag people around in it, the Sienna scores a big win here. If you need flexibility, the Chryslers are untouchable in that regard.

On the move, it’s quickly apparent that the Sienna and Caravan are from two entirely different schools of vehicular-dynamic thought. Simply put, the Sienna sucks as a driving proposition in every way that matters. The engine is completely gutless and feels thoroughly overmatched in this application, lugging against too much gear before giving up, changing down with an audible clunk, and hellishly moaning at its retro six-grand redline. The brakes feel completely worthless in hard usage, although that can probably be at least partially attributed to the miseries of rental life. Fast lane changes in the Sienna are positively nautical; my Town Car is noticeably better at controlling its body motion in the same situation. In the evening cut-and-thrust around the SFO airport, I gave up early and resigned myself to being dive-bombed for lane position again and again. My knee repeatedly turned off the low-mounted cruise control, exacerbating the situation somewhat and no doubt further alienating my fellow motorists.

I had hoped that the Sienna’s futuristic shape might pay off in wind noise reduction, but it was louder inside than the Caravans by some margin. There’s an extra A-pillar window as a consequence of that sleek silhouette, but as far as I can tell it’s completely worthless in actual use and I’d rather have a lower sticker price with a GM-style modesty panel shoved in the gap.

After a pair of 115-mile jaunts in the Sienna, I was more or less sick of the thing and I looked forward to returning it as soon as possible. From the wavy interior plastic to the gutless engine to the total lack of surprise-and-delight features, my tester van felt like an extremely cynical effort to cash in on the brand loyalty earned by other, far superior Toyota products. It’s worth noting that Toyota has never really had a killer app for the minivan market, unless your idea of the perfect family wagon is a supercharged suppository shape with the engine somewhere under the driver’s ass. It’s hard to imagine any reason for purchasing this current offering other than naked fear that the competition won’t be as reliable. I would suggest that these fears should be partially mitigated by the fact that one could buy three Caravans for every two Siennas one might hope to own.

It is true, however, that I have seen many an utterly miserable-looking old Sienna continuing to plow away with a quarter-million miles on the clock. Perhaps this Sienna is meant to anticipate a similar future by already looking crappy at 31,600 miles. Perhaps it would never get any worse. It’s hard to tell. If it still looks like this years from now, that wouldn’t be so bad. I also wonder if Toyota’s decision to drop the four-cylinder was such a great idea. Yes, it’s very slow, and yes, it’s very coarse, but I trust it more than I trust any Toyota V-6. If I had to drive a Sienna for the next decade and cover all the expenses myself, I might be tempted to choose the four, even though it barely clocked 22mpg in my unenthusiastic stewardship. There’s no possible reason to own a Sienna other than the explicit expectation of Land-Cruiser-in-Africa-style long-term durability, and the 2.7L would be an asset on that particular balance sheet.

I’m a car guy, you know? I like cars and I can usually find a reason to get enthusiastic about almost anything I drive. The Sienna LE 2.7L was a rare exception. I disliked it from the moment I backed it out of its stall at Hertz and realized it didn’t have parking sensors, and our relationship never got better. I’m not saying you should buy a Caravan over this thing — some people have been too badly burned by Chrysler minivans to ever give them a second chance. I am, however, saying you should choose something else. Even the most die-hard Toyota fan deserves better than this.

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Avoidable Contact: An immodest proposal to solve the German nomenclatural nincompoopery. http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/avoidable-contact-an-immodest-proposal-to-solve-the-german-nomenclatural-nincompoopery/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/avoidable-contact-an-immodest-proposal-to-solve-the-german-nomenclatural-nincompoopery/#comments Wed, 03 Apr 2013 14:03:02 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=483420 Why, why, why the hell is the new BMW 328d called the 328d? It’s a 3-Series, so that part’s legitimate, even if today’s 3er dwarfs the old Bavaria. It’s also a diesel, so the “d” seems appropriate, even if the absence of a “t” rankles a bit among those of us who remember the 524td. […]

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Why, why, why the hell is the new BMW 328d called the 328d? It’s a 3-Series, so that part’s legitimate, even if today’s 3er dwarfs the old Bavaria. It’s also a diesel, so the “d” seems appropriate, even if the absence of a “t” rankles a bit among those of us who remember the 524td. Not that “t” always meant “turbo” in BMW-land; sometimes it meant “touring” like fast, sometimes it meant “touring” like station wagon.

The problem is this: the “28” in 328d suggests a 2.8-liter engine. Just like the 528e had. Well, actually, that was a 2.7-liter engine. The same engine appeared in the 325e, where it was also 2.7 liters. Still, those are relatively white decklid lies compared to the effrontery of putting a two-liter engine in a car and badging it as a 2.8, right? There has to be a rhyme and reason here somewhere, surely. And it there isn’t, then surely there’s a way to put some sense and sensibility back into the German-car game, right?

Good news: I, your humble author, have a solution.

Before I detail my easy-as-pie and completely reasonable idea, however, let’s consider just how BMW and Mercedes in particular got themselves into this mess. The idea of naming a car after its engine displacement isn’t a new one — in fact, it dates from very nearly the first automobiles — but since cars in Europe were often taxed on their displacement the importance of knowing said displacement right up front took on a rather outsized importance in that market. It never happened here, otherwise the fellow chasing the “hot rod Lincoln” would have bragged that “nothin’ will outrun my three-point-six-liter Ford.” Here in the United States, we named our cars after animals, cities, natural phenomena, and other fun stuff. Who would want a “Ford 4.7S” when you could have a Ford Mustang?

In the dour environment of postwar Germany, however, Mercedes-Benz chose to name their cars after their displacement, with only the addition of an “S” for “Super” executive sedans spoiling the purity of the naming scheme. Later on, more letters appeared after the numbers, but those numbers tended to be trustworthy. A “180” probably was 1.8 liters. The “300SLR” really was a three-liter engine. It mostly made sense.

The first real cracks in the scheme appeared when Mercedes-Benz decided to boost the available power in the S-Class sedans. When the 6.3-liter V-8 was dropped into the 300SEL, somebody realized that calling it the 630SEL might give it more decklid authority on the Autobahn than the “600” limo. (That should have been the “630”, come to think of it.) Something had to be done, and that something was to create a car called the “300SEL 6.3″. Other 300SELs arrived after that, including the 300SEL 3.5 and the 300SEL 4.5. The last one always amused me because presumably it was done to prevent the crass horror of calling a car the “450SEL”. Naturally, the next big Benz to appear was, in fact, called the 450SEL.

BMW had been struggling with a rather confusing displacement-based scheme of its own, where the 2002 was a two-door 2000 rather than a 2000 with two additional milliliters of bore. The sensible decision was made to create a universal naming scheme. To prevent the silliness of a 300SEL 4.5, the displacement was given second billing behind an arbitrary number meant to denote the size of sausage being sold. A 320i, therefore, was a 3-Series with a two-liter engine.

This scheme lasted all of ten minutes before BMW decided to fit a 1.8-liter engine into the US-market 320i without changing the badge. Presumably this was done because customers, who had already caught on to the general idea that a higher number was better, would balk at paying more for this year’s 318i then they had paid for the previous year’s 320i. The “318i” moniker didn’t appear until the E30 did. Note how quickly the number really started to matter. Fewer than five years after adopting a logical model designation system, BMW was already having to fudge it. Let’s not forget the 745i, of course, which was a turbocharged 730i. The “4.5” was meant to represent the, ah, equivalent power potential or something like that.

By 1990 or thereabouts, the German model schemes were being honored more in the breach than the observance. The small Mercedes was called the 190E 2.3, or the 190E 2.5, or the 190E 2.6. You could buy a 190E 2.6 or a 260E. They were very different cars. BMW was selling the same engine in the 325 and 528. Mercedes blinked and created the ridiculous notion of C, E, and S-Class cars. This should have made it possible to honestly state the displacement, since the letter was there to denote prestige. Naturally, the minute the C230K went from a 2.3-liter to a 1.8-liter supercharged four-cylinder, the scheme was broken and we then had a C230 1.8. BMW, meanwhile, was selling a 3.0-liter six-cylinder in a car and calling it the 328i. In the 3-Series, the turbocharged 3.0-liter was called a 335i, but that same engine in a 7-Series made it a 740Li. This was odd, because once upon a time a 740Li was a 4.4-liter V-8.

This brings us to the present day, which looks like so:

320i — 2.0L
328i — 2.0L (four-doors)
328i — 3.0L (two-doors)
328d — 2.0L
335i — 3.0L

This won’t do, will it? Only one of the five configurations is even close to being named after its actual displacement. You can’t even rely on the engines being smaller than their listed displacement; the old carry-over coupe has a larger engine than the decklid suggests.

I find the whole situation thrilling because it’s yet another case of people “misusing” a technology or a language or a tool. Engineers and designers and marketroids love to sit around and determine exactly how somebody will use or buy or regard a product, but those plans never survive the first contact with the enemy. In Africa, smartphones are bank accounts. The World Wide Web mostly transmits content types that weren’t even suggested when the first HTML pages were written. Somebody goes through the trouble of making a nice pre-surgery drug like Rohypnol and the next thing you know, ugly guys in New York with the ability to lift and carry 150 pounds are getting lucky like you wouldn’t believe.

Whatever ideas BMW might have had for its naming system in 1974, the market has its own ideas, and those ideas run something like this: a bigger number is better. Well, duh. The 328d has to be a 2.8 “marketing displacement” engine because the 328i is a 2.8, and that is a 2.8 because it’s meant to have equivalent power to the old 2.8, which was really a 3.0 but which was downgraded to create more marketing space between it and the significantly more expensive 335i. BMW could just reset everything to actual displacement but customers would expect the price to drop. How could a 320ti cost as much as the old 328i? How could a 320d cost more than a 328i?

Let’s not even get into the 7-Series, where the fine old name 735i can’t be used because it sounds cheap compared to 740i, and 730ti absolutely positively cannot be used under any circumstances. How about those Mercedes-Benz E63 AMGs which don’t displace 6.3 liters any more and in fact never actually did?

The pressure is on the manufacturers to offer more number for the buck. Pretty soon, the 328i will have to be a 330i, perhaps. It’s easy to imagine a situation where a high-efficiency 1.5-liter “330i” exists. Two marketing liters for every real one! Not to mention the fact that a two-liter turbo will eventually power US-market 7-Series sedans and no way in hell are they going to be called “720Li”. Meanwhile, Mercedes is selling a 1.8-liter C250 and a 3.5-liter C300. It’s all getting cray-cray up in here.

The proper solution to all of this is blinding in its simplicity. For the majority of consumers, the number on a BMW or Mercedes is only relevant insofar as it provides an approximate estimate of price. The numbers are also judged against the competition, a fact which caused Audi to rename its new “300” sedan to “Audi V-8″ at the last minute lo these many years ago, since the Audi “300” would have cost a fair bit more than a Mercedes 300E and a hell of a lot more than a BMW 325. So why mess around with all this stupidity about equivalent turbocharged marketing displacement and whatnot?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the newest BMW: the BMW 32,250. Formerly known as the 320i, it’s now named directly after its price. If you put options on it, the number will go higher. Or, you could choose a full-sized sedan like the BMW 73,550, formerly the “740i”. All the mystery is gone. The price is on the trunk. Show it to your neighbors, who just took delivery of a Mercedes-Benz 51,500 instead of the E350 they’d had their eyes on a year or so ago. From now on, you’ll know what everybody around you paid for their car. No more obscurity. Sure, we won’t know what size the engines are, but we don’t know that now. You can find that boring crap out right here on TTAC, while your girlfriend looks at your mid-engined Audi 114,200 and calculates what her engagement ring should cost.

In a single unilateral move, I’ve destroyed all nomenclatural confusion for all time. Until, that is, BMW starts offering rebates. Pretty soon, the BMW 89,400 will go out the door for $60k or less. Leased examples won’t say BMW 339/month, but maybe they should? What about used cars? Will they have their logos jumbled the way second-rate bodyshops often create S450 Benzos with heavy orange peel? It’s all too much to think about. Maybe some legislation should be introduced to give every car a name — but what if that name is Cutlass Calais Brougham?

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Review: Morgan 3 Wheeler http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/review-morgan-3-wheeler/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/04/review-morgan-3-wheeler/#comments Mon, 01 Apr 2013 13:00:51 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=483030 “YOUR CAR!!!! I LOVE YOUR CAR!!!!” She was a Slavic-faced woman in her mid-twenties, not bad for New York and positively model-grade by Midwestern standards, and she was literally hopping up and down on the streetcorner. “It’s not a car,” I said, wedged into the Morgan’s extremely tight drivers’ compartment, feeling self-conscious in a half-face […]

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“YOUR CAR!!!! I LOVE YOUR CAR!!!!” She was a Slavic-faced woman in her mid-twenties, not bad for New York and positively model-grade by Midwestern standards, and she was literally hopping up and down on the streetcorner.

“It’s not a car,” I said, wedged into the Morgan’s extremely tight drivers’ compartment, feeling self-conscious in a half-face helmet that I wasn’t strictly sure was necessary or even required by law. “It’s a trike.”

“I WANT A RIDE!” she yelled. A crowd was starting to gather. The stoplight seemed to be taking an unusually long time to change.

“There isn’t room.” Wedged next to me, the Morgan’s owner, professional bon vivant and recreational speeder Alex Roy, was making a “no room” motion with his hands in her direction as he explained the situation.

“Oh,” I smirked, “I think there’s room.” But then the green light flashed and with an incongruous but very forceful Harley-blat we departed the intersection, leaving Miss Hopping Estonia 2007 in our blue-smoking wake.

Most modern gearheads know who Alex Roy is; he’s even managed to get on the Letterman show in order to brag about making it across the country in thirty-one hours and change in one of his “POLIZEI” BMW M5s. Like fellow journalist and daredevil Matt Farah, Mr. Roy is notorious for all sorts of high-dollar hijinks in various Bullruns, Gumballs, and other velvet-rope driving events. Also like Matt Farah, the real-life Alex Roy is a thoughtful intellectual with a genuine, childlike passion for cars. It’s hard not to like them both once you have any in-person exposure to them.

A few years ago, I had a couple of caustic words for the bald-by-choice Roy. In response, he sent me a copy of his book and invited me to stop by his place in New York to discuss it. I arrived ready for a good solid scrap but ended up laughing all evening at Alex’s ability to turn a phrase in the service of a story. At the heart of it, he’s one of “us”. He’s a car guy through and through. Whatever my opinion of the Gumball Rally might be, (hint: it rhymes with chucks rocks) my opinion of Alex Roy is high.

When he offered me an opportunity to spin his Morgan Trike around Lower Manhattan in the dead of night, therefore, I accepted before he could finish the sentence. I arrived at his Greenwich Village loft last Tuesday evening and found Alex screening films with his cross-country co-driver, the impeccably handsome David Maher. With Mr. Maher’s departure to do whatever millionaire playboys do in New York, Alex and I headed to the parking garage beneath his building. The trike was parked on a very steep blind exit, so my first task was to fire it up and drive away without rolling backwards and hitting my own rental car.

I hadn’t been exactly sure what to expect when I squeezed myself into the leather-lined open cockpit, but the reality of operating the 3 Wheeler is very pleasant. Three pedals, no hand clutch or anything deliberately odd like that. It starts up like a car, although there’s a master switch to flip on before hitting the starter button. My size 10.5D New Balance 993s fit the pedalbox with no difficulty, although there’s no dead pedal to speak of. This would not be a great vehicle in which to cross the country, even if one suspected it could be done in thirty-one hours. Which it could not, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. Although final drive is by means of an unconventional and fairly delicate toothed belt, I had no trouble balancing it on the clutch and then rolling it up and out of the garage.

The last trike I drove was the the rather imperfect CanAm Spyder, which was basically a snowmobile with wheels. This, on the other hand, feels like a somewhat attenuated version of a Caterham Seven. Control efforts are very low, from the wrist-action shifter to the quick-to-engage brakes. I found it easy to place my left palm flat on the ground without altering my seating position. I don’t recommend doing this on the move, even for a moment, even just to see if you can do it. The Morgan offers a doorhandle’s-eye view of New York City traffic.

The power from the S&S-built Harley twin is more than adequate, even short-shifting to save the already-battered drive belt. It’s possible to dive for gaps between taxis, but this is no Crown Victoria and it has to be understood that in any metal-mashing encounter with anything more substantial than a Vespa the Morgan will likely come off the loser. Best to use the power to get out of trouble, rather than into it.

With 1,996 miles of hard downtown use showing on the odometer at the start of our journey, Mr. Roy’s trike has already suffered a variety of mechanical issues including the departure of both exhaust hangers, a failure of the accelerator pedal bushing, and a gradual collapse of the headlight brackets. After a few minutes in Chelsea it’s easy to see why. You, the urban Morgan driver, must continually steer between manhole covers and potholes. Striking any of them will result in a crash and rattle from the front kingpins violent enough to reposition one’s spectacles. Thankfully, the front end steers with perfect clarity and precision. It’s the back wheel that causes a spot of difficulty, really. At fifty miles per hour, any sudden manhole-cover-avoidance maneuver results in a rather startling oscillation from the rear wheel as it meanders up and down the road crown looking for a place to settle. I can easily imagine it breaking free entirely under less than considerable provocation. The way it interacts with the various steel plates and whatnot making up a large part of city streets has to be experienced to be understood but if you’ve driven an old motorcycle in New York and you’ve felt a narrow bike tire scoot on steel sideways you’ll have an idea.

The Morgan is far from autobahn-ready, and Roy describes the few racetrack laps he’s taken in it as “slower than the safety car,” but in this downtown environment it’s absolutely perfect. Not because it’s safe, spacious, easy to see, or terribly competent to drive, but because it pulls female attention like Mark Purefoy’s bathing scene in the second season of HBO’s Rome. At every one of Manhattan’s crowded crosswalks, the trike creates an absolutely hilarious phenomenon that goes something like this: children stare open-mouthed, men pretend to ignore it, and women of all types start twitching from the knees up. I experienced this phenomenon when I used to drive a Seven clone around central Ohio, but let’s face it: Columbus is a hick town and every time somebody in the city buys a Mustang GT the local paper runs a front page story entitled NEW SPORTING VELOCIPEDE PURCHASED FROM LOCAL PURVEYOR OF NON-TRACTOR MOTORIZED VEHICLES.

New York, on the other hand, is the capital of the world and the women here have seen it all. I’ve personally observed an F430 snarl its way down 7th Avenue without anybody looking in its direction whatsoever. And when the ladies of the city do deign to notice your Reventon or what have you, it’s usually with some comment regarding lack of endowment. The common-and-garden-variety 911 Turbo S is more of a hindrance to getting your groove on the Village than a BUSH/CHENEY FARM AND RANCH TEAM T-shirt would be.

Not so the Morgan. After a solid twenty minutes of seeing beautiful women run into the street for a mere chance to more closely examine the vehicle and its pilots, I asked Alex if this was par for the course. “Oh, yes,” he laughed, “I can get in trouble with this thing if I drive it around. Better to stay at home.” At perhaps sixty grand all in — the price of a Boxster 2.7 PDK with vinyl seatbacks, 13″ steel wheels, and a molded-plastic blank plate labeled “POVERTY” where the radio’s supposed to be — the Trike is an absurd value, assuming you have no concerns about the future of your marriage or the present state of your prostate gland.

Before I knew it, we’d arrived at Roy’s chosen restaurant, where we just parked the thing out front as if it were legal or advisable to do so. While I dined on some top-notch roasted chicken and chucked back the Ketel One, he laughingly observed women climbing into the Morgan for photographs again and again. “I don’t mind,” he allowed, “as long as they aren’t hurting anything.” When we walked out, a young couple was attempting to photograph themselves in front of the Morgan.

“I’m the owner,” I announced, and simply put my arm around the lady’s waist, dragging her away. “Take a picture,” I commanded, which the boyfriend dutifully did. Then, amazingly enough, he turned to Alex to ask him about the car. “Perhaps you’d like to take a spin with me,” I whispered in my impromptu companion’s ear. She nodded eagerly; it didn’t appear that she spoke English. I caught Roy’s eye; he was clearly prepared to wingman for me. This was a man who had bluffed his way out of a hundred dicey situations. It occurred to me that the key to his rather impressive loft was probably also on the trike’s keychain. I could absolutely rely on Roy to keep this fellow occupied for hours while I alternately serenaded and violated his significant other. How could I not do it? In a moment, I attained what the Buddhists call satori. I understood why Fate had decreed that I would never be handsome, successful, or lucky: I’m simply not prepared to handle any of those things with grace. I released the lady’s waist with a final and thoroughly inappropriate caress and slumped back into the Morgan, helmet askew, prepared for the next destination.

Perhaps thirty people crowded around us as Alex hopped in and I selected first gear. I’ve seen other trikes decorated with the Flying Tigers gaping-maw graphic; I’d be tempted to select that for mine. It makes sense. In the city, the Morgan makes fighter pilots out of ordinary men and adventure out of a trip to dinner. It’s best left to people whose sense of self is just as larger than life. It was a relief to exchange it for my Caravan and once again become an observer of, rather than a participant in, the city’s nightlife. Still, I can’t say that I haven’t looked at the Morgan website since then. Celebrity’s a hell of a drug, isn’t it?

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What Do The Pope And Jack Baruth Have In Common? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/03/what-do-the-pope-and-jack-baruth-have-in-common/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/03/what-do-the-pope-and-jack-baruth-have-in-common/#comments Thu, 21 Mar 2013 17:13:54 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=481960 A vow of celibacy? Threatening to cut someone’s throat at a race track? Flowing locks? No, silly. They both love the Volkswagen Phaeton. Our raven haired race car driver famously owned not one but two Phaetons, thereby earning himself the title of “masochist of the century” and a complimentary membership to Opus Dei – Jack’s […]

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A vow of celibacy? Threatening to cut someone’s throat at a race track? Flowing locks? No, silly. They both love the Volkswagen Phaeton.

Our raven haired race car driver famously owned not one but two Phaetons, thereby earning himself the title of “masochist of the century” and a complimentary membership to Opus Dei – Jack’s self-mortification was only financial, rather than physical, but I’m sure the order will admit him anyways.

Meanwhile, our Pontiff is a Jesuit, and is more concerned about things like social justice and acts of humility. No wonder he’s shunned the Mercedes SUVs of the past in favor of the discrete Volkswagen Phaeton with a TDI powerplant. I wonder if Herr Schmitt, our other resident lapsed Catholic (now practicing Shinto) ever envisioned this coming to pass during his days at VW.

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Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better! http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/02/four-legs-good-two-legs-better/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/02/four-legs-good-two-legs-better/#comments Tue, 26 Feb 2013 15:31:54 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=479148 I haven’t seen it yet — my only current magazine subscriptions are The Economist, Vintage Guitar, and Juggs — but I am reliably told that your humble author has two, count ’em, two articles in the newest issue of that well-beloved and august publication, Road&Track. TTAC readers are already comparing me to the Emperor Napoleon […]

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I haven’t seen it yet — my only current magazine subscriptions are The Economist, Vintage Guitar, and Juggs — but I am reliably told that your humble author has two, count ’em, two articles in the newest issue of that well-beloved and august publication, Road&Track. TTAC readers are already comparing me to the Emperor Napoleon as I triumphantly return to color magazines the way Napoleon returned from Elba.

Yes, I said return.

Twenty-two years ago, I began writing for Bicycles Today magazine. In a monthly column entitled “One Racer’s Perspective”, I railed against the excesses of the industry, provided advice for new racers, and exposed the too-cozy relationship between the manufacturers and the color mags. I even wrote a little fiction. Sounds thoroughly familiar, right? Most of all, I campaigned for riders to be given a voice in the sport of bicycle motocross, which at that point was run by an unholy coalition of parents and sunshine-state scam artists.

When BMX Action! became GO! magazine and a fellow pro racer named Chris Moeller took control as editor, he invited me to contribute and I did so… only to see the rag fold before my first column could be printed. Oh well. The first experiment in letting the inmates run the asylum was a failure.

A decade after that unhappy ending, I wrote an angry letter to Car and Driver objecting to their praise of a certain South African kit-car manufacturer. C/D printed the letter and a major online car forum of the era made said letter a subject of discussion. My decision to join that discussion started a chain of events that landed me right here nine years later.

Road&Track is not the first major car magazine to ask me to contribute. I declined for a variety of reasons in the past and when Sam Smith contacted me in August my first impulse was to decline again. Over the course of a couple discussions, however, I became convinced by the three-inch-thick stack of Benjamins Hearst Publications offered me clarity and integrity of Sam’s vision for the mag.

To bring me on as an occasional contributor, Sam not only had to convince me, he had to deal with a firestorm of objections, criticism, and negative reactions from automakers and fellow journalists who have been on the receiving end of my cordovan MacNeils since 2007 or thereabouts. To his credit, he did that and his boss, Larry Webster, stood behind him. They’re still hearing that they’ve made the wrong decision — from people in the business, from the yes-men in the PR cliques, from the whispering cowards at the press events.

If you pick up the April issue of Road&Track, you’ll see that my editorial voice and personal commitment to truth were allowed to shine through without modification or mollification. The comparison test I wrote, which pits the 911 Carrera S PDK against the Lotus Evora S IPS on the back roads of South Carolina, may shock the mag’s regular readers but it won’t shock you.

I will continue to do the majority of my writing right here at TTAC, but I am pleased to note that for the foreseeable future, you’ll also be able to read me at Road&Track. I’m also asking you, the reader, to hold me accountable for what I write here and there. I’m not doing this for the money or the perks; I’ve owned the kind of cars most autojournos have to sign two waivers just to touch and when I want to fly somewhere nice I just take out my wallet. I’m in this business because I believe in truth and I remain deeply passionate about cars. That won’t change.

This experiment that Hearst is trying — that of stacking a color magazine with actual club racers and letting them run wild — may fare no better than Wizard Publications’ decision to let Chris Moeller run BMX Action! I’m hoping that’s not the case. This time, the good guys deserve a win, and I expect to be standing right next to them when it goes up on the scoreboard.

Be seeing you.

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