Posts By: Jack Baruth

By on September 7, 2018

It would have been nice to make it to a 10th anniversary, to celebrate a full decade as a contributor to this august website. Oh, that a man might know / The end of this day’s business ere it come! / But it sufficeth that the day will end / And then the end is […]

By on August 30, 2018

I want to love you, CKD. But who, or what, is CKD? It stands for Completely Knocked Down, and it’s a term used for a rather strange way to build a car. It works like so: A “mother plant” builds a new car. But not all the way. Just into sub-assemblies that can be put […]

By on August 28, 2018

dealership

Serious question: What kind of experience do you need in order to write credibly about the automobile? If you were to ask some of the autojourno Boomers, they might tell you that the minimum requirement would be the career path followed by my time-and-again boss, Larry Webster: engineering degree, followed immediately by a magazine employment history that starts at “road warrior” and ends at “E-I-C of the most solvent color rag in the business”.

Some people would say that my boon companion Sam Smith did it right: college degree, time as a professional BMW mechanic, many years as a self-funded club racer in concert with his experienced and mechanically knowledgeable father. I’d like to argue for my own path: mildly successful car salesman, F&I experience with multiple captive finance firms, ground-floor experience with automotive tech and production, eighteen years of motorsports with a sack full of wins and lap records.

Ah, but these are means and not ends. They are how and not why. They detail the pathway by which expertise is acquired but they are not expertise themselves. If you read everything that Larry and Sam and I have written, you would know a major percentage of the things we know, and then you would be free to go forth and apply that knowledge to future situations. All you would need at that point would be an ability to write.

You could get by with less. LJK Setright was frequently dead wrong but I’d rather read his mistakes than labor through Csaba Csere’s researched conclusions. Gordon Baxter was not a great pilot and he was a worse driver. As a teenager, I read the work of gunwriter Jeff Cooper until I knew much of it by heart; years later, a mutual friend confessed to me that Cooper was only just competent with a .45 caliber pistol.

This is what you cannot be and still succeed, not if there is any justice in this world or the next: ignorant and proud of it, stupid yet blase about it, stilted in prose but unwilling to fix it. Which brings us to this week’s question.

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By on August 24, 2018

Here’s that Ranger day
They told me about
And I laughed at the thought
That it might turn out
This way

Apologies to the Chairman Of The Board on that one, but I couldn’t help myself. You see, I never truly believed that the Ranger would return to this country. I absolutely did not believe that it would come back as an American-made product in a newly configured factory, during what amounts to the endgame senescence of its platform. This is the kind of against-all-odds urgency that one typically associates with desperately needed products like the K-car or the first-generation Ranger — vehicles that had to be rushed into showrooms because the dealerships were screaming bloody murder and the Japanese had moved from mere flensing to actual bone-eating.

This Ranger, on the other hand, will arrive in the market to find itself lined up against a few equally superannuated sluggards from Nissan and Toyota, the indifferently-received Colorado/Canyon twins, and… is there anybody else? The unibody Ridgeline? Is it even possible to make money in this segment? Why bother doing it, particularly when the Rangers could have been rushed over from Thailand in a matter of months in the event of another oil and/or confidence crisis?

Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and buy. Truth be told, I’m kind of excited about the Ranger, because I saw a bunch of pumped-up ones in Thailand and I was more than mildly impressed. If you could get it with a 3.7-liter V6 in addition to the 2.3L EcoBoost I don’t know if the Chevy dealers would even bother to order any Colorados for stock in 2019. There’s only one little problem: it’s far from cheap.

Which brings us to an unpleasant topic: How much is a compact pickup worth?

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By on August 9, 2018

“The kapchai menace must be stopped.” The fellow who shared that particular opinion in a major Malaysian newspaper will no doubt find that many people agree with him. I can see his point; after spending much of the last two weeks driving across Malaysia and Thailand I have come to loathe the sight of the things.

There is no gap in Kuala Lumpur’s molasses-like traffic so small that it will not immediately be filled with a swarm of the little motorcycles. Every lane change has to be accompanied by a constant iguana-eye monitoring of all four sides of one’s automobile lest it inadvertently lead to manslaughter — or worse yet, family-slaughter, since it’s common to see up to four people crowded onto a kapchai‘s thinly padded seat.

Yet the kapchai is the sole “mobility option” for millions of low-income people across Southeast Asia. The very best of them, the bad-ass 100-mph five-speed Yamahas and Hondas in their Repsol or Petronas liveries, cost about $2,100 brand new. The rest of them can be seen at roadside dealers in serviceable condition for between $300 and $500. Adjusted for local currency, they’re about the cost of a hundred meals sold by a roadside vendor. Imagine that you could solve your personal transportation needs for the cost of a hundred Big Macs, and you can easily see the appeal. If you then use the kapchai for a little smash-and-grab urban robbery, as many people do, it pays for itself very quickly. If you don’t… well, the operating costs are still very low.

I’d guess that about 95 percent of you are now asking yourselves, “So what exactly is a kapchai, anyway?” The best way to understand it: the kapchai is a kangaroo, and the kapchai is also a Toyota SUV. I’ll explain, of course.

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By on July 26, 2018

“We buy year… then we buy mileage… then we buy condition.” That was a favorite axiom of the used-car appraiser at my old Ford dealership. What he meant was this: In the first few years of a car’s life, people will pay more money if it’s a bit newer than a similar model sitting right next to it. Once it’s about five years old, the conversation switches to mileage: you’d rather have a 2012 ECTO-300def with 75,000 miles than a 2014 model with 105,000.

Usually by the time a car reaches the decade mark, and certainly by the fifteenth anniversary, it’s all about condition, condition, condition. Are you in the market for an Eighties Porsche? Condition is king. Are you limited by fate and circumstance to something like a 2005 Ford Focus? Then it’s doubly true.

Which leads us to today’s episode of Ask Jack, in which the person doing the asking is… uh… me.

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By on July 20, 2018

Just a couple of weeks into my ECO 101 class, I knew that something was terribly wrong.

At the age of nineteen, I’d already worked for a few dealerships and I was on the way to opening up my own bike shop. Yet I knew at some level that I was profoundly ignorant of the levers that truly move the world. So I signed up for an economics class to learn about those levers.

I learned a lot of theories and concepts in that semester, most of them “proven” by long experience if not by experiment; much like climate science and astronomy, economics is one of those disciplines where much of the scientific method is rendered inaccessible for obvious reasons. Even as a kid, however, I could tell that pure economic theory, like pure Marxism, had no relation to the real world. I was shown a lot of charts where imaginary widget factories maximized output until they broke even on the last widget they made. I heard a lot about elastic and inelastic demand. Things were shown to be fungible, or perhaps not. But if there was a direct connection to the way business worked in my daily life, it must have been made of Larry Niven’s shadow-square wire.

Now, in my forties, I have come to the conclusion that ECO 101 should not be taught to anyone who has not already taken ECO 102, or perhaps owned a business, or maybe reached the age of retirement. ECO 101 contains information that is too dangerous to be used or acted upon in its purest form. The real world doesn’t play by the rules you learn in that class.

Want proof? Here’s some: apparently people won’t buy a brand-new $16,950 car if it’s listed for half price. (Read More…)

By on July 19, 2018

“It’s a Jeep thing; you wouldn’t understand.” That phrase might be a breathtaking bit of cultural appropriation at a level that shocks even your aging and decidedly hidebound author, but it’s not wrong. Consider, if you will, the vehicle pictured above. It’s the old “Wrangler JK” — a vehicle which has had a decade-plus run […]

By on July 13, 2018

It’s best to just admit it: I have van envy. The educated among you will know that van envy, like many other communicable diseases, comes in a few forms. There’s Van Envy A, which is the traditional desire to have a boxy vehicle of some sort in the immediate vicinity for carrying children and accomplishing household tasks; this virus is typically found in the water supply of single-family homes. Van Envy B is indicated by repeated involuntary exclamations of “dajiban!” You catch that from accidental subculture immersion.

Van Envy MTB is when you can’t stop thinking about fitting out a fresh new Transit with a toolbox and internal bicycle mounts so you can take a quick trip to Ray’s Bike Park in Cleveland — or maybe Moab. The most virulent and damaging strain of the disease is Van Envy IG, which manifests in a gnawing sense of envy regarding attractive twenty-something couples who rootlessly travel the West holding drum circles and making love in converted high-roof Sprinters, subsisting on nothing but their income from selling woven bracelets at street fairs and an eight-figure trust fund.

Today’s question comes from someone who is suffering from precisely none of that. Instead, he has another condition. One marked by eroding telomere chains, drying skin, and a growing desire to watch Matlock. Chances are you have it too, although it might not be as severe.

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By on July 5, 2018

2018 Ford F-150 - Image: Ford

It will be a day or two too late by the time you read this, but: Happy Independence Day! It’s been a very long time since I felt compelled to cloak my appreciation of this country in the kind of irony frequently employed by my autojourno colleagues on Twitter and elsewhere, and I certainly won’t start now. The United States is far from perfect and I am afraid that some of the changes made here over the past fifty years have been profoundly negative in their effects, but it remains the proverbial city on the hill for many of the world’s citizens. As the song says, I’ve been around the world and I, I, I, I… haven’t seen any other place where middle-class families own property, start businesses, and create wealth like they do here.

While I certainly understand how many of my coastal friends and acquaintances no longer feel that the American Dream exists for them or for anyone else, I also feel compelled to note that we are doing just fine here in the Midwest. Where I live, four-year-old children play unsupervised outside and the police shake your hand in the street. Some time ago I accidentally left a $275,000 Ferrari out in front of my house overnight with the windows down, the keys on the center console, and my wallet next to them. Needless to say, nothing happened. I know that’s par for the course inside Mark Zuckerberg’s gates but my neighborhood consists mostly of stay-at-home moms and mid-five-figure household incomes. Come back to the real America, if you like, but leave your emotional support animals, your addiction to food-as-virtue, and your army of domestic staff behind you. Out here, people raise human children instead of “furbabies,” thoughtlessly consume GMO produce, and clean their own bathrooms. It’s considered character-building.

I know you won’t do it. Nobody is going to change sides. We are too deeply divided now into Blue And Red Tribes. We judge incoming information based on how well it conforms to our existing beliefs. Want an example? How about this: For over six decades, the automakers have been predicting that increased emissions, safety, and fuel-consumption standards would have a negative impact on the bottom line. The media alternately ignored and lampooned them for saying so. Now those same automakers say that Trump’s policies will have a similar impact and the media is treating it the way the Catholic Church once treated an ex cathedra pronouncement.

My response to that? It’s this

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By on June 27, 2018

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

It’s a question that comes up a lot more often than one would think, particularly in the lifelong molasses-sludge known as “middle-class American existence”: When purchasing a new (insert name of new thing here), should you get a fully-equipped or high-end item from an “everyday” brand, or should you stretch to the stripped-out base model of the prestige brand? I have a lot of admiration for the fellow who buys a Grand Seiko Spring Drive for the price of a plain-Jane Panerai or Rolex Submariner — but on the other hand, I think a plain wool suit from a Savile Row tailor is probably more desirable than the pimped Zegna Trofeo coats that have accompanied me around the world for the past 15 years.

The fashion comparisons are fun (for me, at least) but the majority of buyers are most likely to face this problem when car shopping. Loaded Camry or base Lexus ES? Yukon Denali or no-options Range Rover Sport? Nismo 350Z or Corvette Z51 1LT? Then, of course you have my pal Chuck, who after years of trawling Porsche’s bargain basement wants to try… something that isn’t much better, IMO.

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By on June 25, 2018

Never mind the bollocks coming from professionally cynical actors-turned-rappers: This is America. At least it is for much of this country’s working middle class. The F-150 is designed in America, tooled-up in America, and made in America. By an American company. For a customer base that is overwhelmingly American. It’s also a solid candidate for […]

By on June 19, 2018

It’s June, which means it’s the time of year for my son to visit his grandfather in South Carolina and spend a week at golf camp. Sometimes I have to spend the week working, sometimes I spent it traveling, and sometimes I get to spend it hanging out with my dad and his friends.

Most of them are cast from the same group of molds: either self-made or with only minor family advantages, a long history of executive positions or highly remunerative small business ownership, more millions left in the bank than they have years left in the tank. They’re not interested in art or literature, they have a casual and hilarious disrespect for modern social ideas, they maintain a sort of gruff good humor about everything from heart attacks to coastal hurricanes. We will not see their like again, which is kind of a shame.

Yesterday one of them came over to say hello, meet the grandchildren, and to ask me a couple of questions about his next vehicle purchase. I long ago figured out that these fellows don’t necessarily want my authentic opinion regarding the merits of the SL65 or the Continental GT. Rather, they want me to nod approvingly at whatever they’ve already decided to buy, at which point we can have a nice lunch and engage in some mutual appreciation of our good fortune in life, regardless of how unevenly said fortune is distributed.

This fellow was different. He came prepared: with notes, impressions, questions. He had hard financial limits in mind, which is vanishingly rare among a class of Baby Boomers who no longer bother to count pennies or Krugerrands. Most importantly, he gave me something to think about long after he’d left.

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By on June 13, 2018

Has it really been five years since I rented and tested the previous Nissan Maxima? Well, as Natalie Merchant once said about children, “At your age / in a string of days / the year is gone.” That less-than-maximum Max was, in my opinion anyway, the worst Maxima ever. Is there anybody out there who […]

By on June 12, 2018

Jeep Liberty 2012, Image: Jeep

Somewhere in my basement there’s an issue of Roundel, the BMW club magazine, that contains an extremely passionate and forceful article regarding a new vehicle from Munich. The author goes on in considerable detail regarding the new car’s size, weight, and insane complexity. He rails against the dilution of BMW’s Autobahn heritage and the compromises the firm is making to attract a wider audience. Lastly, he offers his sincere condolences to the shade-tree mechanics because this new car will be impossible to service anywhere but a dealership.

Those of you who read Roundel back in the day will no doubt guess that this flabby, super-computerized BMW was, in fact, the 1977 320i.

But here’s the thing: All of the complaints in the article were valid. It’s just that the E30 which followed made the E21 320i look fairly simple. The E36 was a rocketship compared to its predecessor and the E46 was a spaceship. Each time the cars changed, the enthusiast base swore loyalty to the relative simplicity and fitness-for-purpose of the old one. Then, as the stock of decent used inventory dwindled and the parts became impossible to find and the lap times continues to sink, that base made a slow and painful transition to the next model in line. This in no way invalidates criticism of the old cars. It’s just that for most people, they had no choice other than to upgrade. It’s possible to keep an old mechanical watch in daily use; it’s not tough at all to keep carrying a Remington-Rand-made Colt pistol from 1942. But cars are vastly more complex than either of those machines.

When the Jeep Liberty replaced the old “XJ” Cherokee, it was universally reviled as a cutesy piece of garbage better suited for the mall crawl than the rock crawl. Alas, tempus fugit and it’s now time for the old Liberty to get a second act.

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