Category: No Fixed Abode

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 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 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 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 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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By on May 22, 2018

Oscar was orange; Grover was green. Agent 007 has no gadgets. Kramer was an agoraphobic named Kessler, and George was cooler than Jerry. It’s common for television shows (and long-running film series) to change in ways that become permanent and significant parts of their identity. When the original episodes or films don’t quite match up in retrospect with what people have come to expect, it’s called Early Installment Weirdness. “The first Puppy Bowl,” the TVTropes site reminds us, “did not have a Kitty Halftime Show.”

There’s plenty of Early Installment Weirdness in the car business — I can still remember seeing a 1953 Corvette for the first time, maybe when I was seven or eight, and saying “That’s not really a Corvette” to my father — but when I saw a very early Lexus RX300 in a parking lot last night I realized that Lexus in general, and the RX series in particular, really takes the cake in this area.

Which is important, because the RX300 is, in many ways, the machine that changed the automotive world into the “later installments” we know today.

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By on May 10, 2018

Genchi gembutsu. It’s a term I heard fairly often during my time in the Great Midwestern Sedan Factory and it means, more or less, “Go look at the issue.” In the years since, I’ve often heard “Agile coaches” and “Scrum masters” in IT talk about “Gemba Walks,” which are supposed to be the same thing. The problem is that software development is nothing like a factory floor, system administration even less so, and if I have to hear one more dimwitted IBM consultant with a two-year DeVry degree lecturing me about “how Japanese manufacturers do things” I’m going to drag said consultant into the paint booth at Marysville and let him drown in whatever shade of grey is being indifferently sprayed on the cars that day. It’s cargo culture at its most pathetic, garnished with a sprig of racism.

Yet there is more than enough truth in the original application of genchi gembutsu. If you’re hearing about a problem on the factory floor, don’t waste time talking about it in the office. Go to the place and look at the problem. Until you do that, you’re just guessing.

It was with that concept in mind that I borrowed a three-row CUV recently for a 1,300-mile trip around the Midwest. Over and over again I’ve decried the modern fetish for massive unibody crossovers, but rarely have I driven one for more than a few miles at a time. This seemed like a good time to “go to the place” and “look at the problem.” I took this vehicle and tested it on its ability to substitute for vehicles both smaller and larger. A week later, I remain shaken, if not stirred, by the experience.

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By on April 10, 2018

If you’re a driver in a major urban area, you probably already know all about the nasty creature known as the “public-private partnership.” In a nutshell, it’s a way for a private company to make money by issuing you citations on behalf of a municipality. There isn’t space on these electronic pages to detail the many ways in which public-private partnerships have veered off the tracks into profiteering, racketeering, bribery, and many other forms of outright criminality. In a way, it’s entirely appropriate; after all, the original “public-private partnership” was the European Letter Of Marque that permitted any yahoo with a sailboat and a cannon or two to become a “privateer” — in other words, a pirate.

It seems only reasonable that someone would eventually come up with a “private-private partnership” that uses technology to defend the hapless motorist rather than burden him further. Something similar happened years ago with radar and laser guns: insurance companies, including GEICO, gave free laser guns to the police in the hopes that the guns would be used to write tickets and thus enable them to raise the rates of their customers. At the same time, Cincinnati Microwave and other companies were selling radar detectors that cost more than a speeding ticket but less than the inevitable insurance hike.

The modern successor to Mike Valentine and Cincinnati Microwave: A 19-year-old with a website, of course.

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By on March 27, 2018

As you would expect, most of the reaction to Cadillac’s announcement of the 550-horsepower CT6 V-Sport centered around its engine, a “clean-sheet” 4.2-liter V8 that is either meant to slavishly ape the current German fetish for diminutive, twin-blown bent-eights or cash in on all that nostalgia for the Northstar and its litany of opportunities for improvement. I’m not sure which.

I don’t know about you, but I think it makes sense to develop a whole new powerplant for the CT6 because, if there is one thing that GM does not already have, it is an exhaustively developed, amazingly compact, remarkably lightweight, and impressively powerful V8 engine. Honestly, the whole thing reminds me of the time that I accidentally bought a used DVD of “Cloverfield” at a Blockbuster Video sale only to get home and discover that not only did I already own a used DVD of Cloverfield, the one I’d just bought had a big scratch in it. Oh well. If nothing else, this new CT6 V-Sport will increase the alacrity with which the tatted-up part-time-barista grandchildren of Boomers await their death and subsequent estate distribution. Grandpa might have left you the ’57 Strat, but he left me that wacky thing that looks like a normal Cadillac Escalade but sits really low on the ground for some reason!

The Son O’ Northstar wasn’t the only technological innovation reported in the press release, however. When the CT6 V-Sport hits the streets, it will feature the largest front brakes ever fitted to a production automobile, eclipsing the 17.3-inch rotors of the Lamborghini Urus with a 19-inch system sourced from Brembo. Even more surprisingly, the whole thing fits snugly inside 20-inch wheels. This new innovation was reported across hundreds of media outlets in the automotive, business, and popular-interest press.

There is just one little issue: it can’t be true.

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By on February 23, 2018

In So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, Douglas Adams introduces the reader to the character of Rob McKenna. Rob is a truck driver; he is also a Rain God. It rains every day of McKenna’s life because the clouds want to be near him. Later on in the book, McKenna starts earning a healthy living from vacation resorts, which pay him to stay away.

I can’t say it’s rained every day of my life. I can say that the weather in my home town improves dramatically the minute I leave. Last week, while I was riding a Road Glide around Los Angeles in a recurring rainstorm, there was an early spring in Ohio. Temperatures went from the mid-twenties to the mid-seventies pretty much overnight and stayed there until my plane was about halfway back home, at which point it started to rain and the mercury dropped twenty degrees. I am not kidding about this.

On the road home, I saw a two-foot-wide hole in the freeway where there had previously been no hole whatsoever. I drove around it. Shortly afterwards, I was confronted by an odd tableau: at least six cars pulled over, covering both shoulders, with their drivers in conversations ranging from dazed to agitated. All of the cars were tilted to some degree, because they all had at least one flat tire. In my rearview mirror, I saw a Subaru coasting to a stop on the right shoulder behind me. It, too, was tilted.

Turns out that was just the beginning.

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By on January 17, 2018

I left Detroit at 4:51AM on Tuesday morning, pointed south for a three-hour drive that would terminate with the beginning of my workday. I could have taken the morning off, but I like to surround my auto shows with a little bit of deliberate misery, lest I inadvertently become too comfortable in the entirely artificial universe of public relations and journalist-pampering that seems to gain steam every year even as the rest of the event comes to resemble the petal-dropping Enchanted Rose in the spare wing of the Beast’s castle. Thus the  4 AM wakeup and the trudge out to the frozen parking lot, hunchbacked with suit bags and audibly creaking from every joint, Danger Girl trailing behind me with the wide-eyed stare common to prisoners of war and victims of spousal abuse, even if it’s mostly musical in nature.

We were not the only people starting our morning, and our truck, before dawn. Long-time TTAC readers may remember that General Motors and a few other automakers pay the travel expenses of quite a few autojournos in exchange for obtaining control of their narratives. Most of them arrive a few days before the actual show, all the better to maximize the free meals and curated experiences. On Saturday, while my son and I were driving up to a skatepark in Cleveland for an evening’s worth of BMX riding, I’d seen a former colleague of mine whining on Instagram about the less-than-five-star nature of his complimentary accommodations at the GM Renaissance Marriott. The only way I could think of to register my disappointment was to change my own hotel reservation to the absolute cheapest room available on Hotels.com: $47 a night for the Allen Park Motor Lodge.

The motel, and the room, turned out to be kinda-sorta okay, although the bed didn’t really make the grade for two people with a hardware store’s worth of screws and bolts in their bones. Here’s the interesting part: I’d expected that most of my fellow motel-dwellers would be engaged in some form of recreational depravity, but in actuality the bulk of them were construction and service-industry workers taking advantage of the weekly rates. They were early to bed and early to rise. Our work-truck white Silverado, parked in a line of pickups that stretched all the way across the motel’s road frontage, was notable only for being slightly newer than the rest. As we backed out of our spot, I saw a few Carhartt-clad fellows trudging out to the Colorados and F-150s and Rams, tool belts slung over their shoulders, rubbing their eyes and exhaling cloudy yawns of crystallized steam towards the moon.

Back to life, back to reality. But there was a bit of irony in it for me, because this Detroit show was the first one in a long time to acknowledge the connection between the polished artifice of the press-event turntable and the early-morning trudge to one’s truck.

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By on January 12, 2018

2017 Chevy Equinox L

It sounds like a sci-fi novel, or maybe even a Fredrick Forsyth knockoff written during the Seventies heyday of Cold War action/adventure books: Six Months of the Equinox. You can imagine the plot, right? Something happens to freeze the planet’s orbit at a certain point. The seasons stop. Mayhem ensues. There’s a machine that might be able to restart the orbit, but a cabal of Russian oligarchs makes a plan to seize it. Only one man — let’s call him Chest Rockwell — can save us.

The reality behind the title is nearly as frightening: It’s the half-year that my current wife, known to all and sundry as Danger Girl even though (SPOILER ALERT) she is actually old enough to vote, traded in one of her Tahoes for a Chevrolet crossover in an attempt to balance her budget. This is the kind of thing that I typically associate with bubbleheads who can’t do math, but Danger Girl is a CPA with extensive financial training. Was she right to do it? It’s a relevant question, because — as you’ll see below — it’s one that we could all be asking ourselves three years from now.

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By on December 19, 2017

[Image: Tesla Motors]

I didn’t learn about the “California No” until I started writing about cars. I was raised on the East Coast, where people have no trouble saying “No” whatsoever. There’s even a song about it. In Ohio, people might be apologetic about it but they will still forthrightly tell you, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to buy from you,” or “I don’t want to meet with you about that.”

That’s not how California works. The so-called “California No” is simply a drawn-out pas de deux in which someone avoids responding directly to your question because they are unwilling to directly refuse or reject you. Supposedly, the California No and the Asian No are related. I couldn’t say. All I can tell you is that I have zero patience for the California No, particularly when it comes from people working in the automotive PR or journalism “spaces,” and I will make attempts to California-No me as uncomfortable as humanly possible, without exception.

To this fine Golden State institution, you can now add the related “California Prohibit,” which is best exemplified by Tesla’s new directive regarding “commercial” use of its Supercharger facilities.

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By on December 13, 2017

“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” Thus spake Tony Montana, anticipating the recent avalanche of sexual harassment claims by a few decades. What ol’ Scarface didn’t bother to tell us is that, for some people, the power is enough. For that lesson, we have O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984, who tells us that the Party seeks power for its own sake. “The object of power is power,” he says.

Those words floated to the front of my mind when I read about Chicago’s new tax on ride-sharing services. The city was already charging 52 cents in tax per ride — plus five bucks per airport pickup — but now it will be charging 67 cents per ride. Starting in 2019, that total will increase to 72 cents.

What could the city do with that extra 15 cents? It’s already scheduled to receive more than 70 million dollars in ride-sharing taxes. What could the justification possibly be for upping the ante? And which of the Chicago machine’s many, many incompetently-operated programs could possibly have the moral right to receive this unexpected bounty?

If you know Chicago, you know the answer. But even if you don’t know Chicago, chances are that you can make an educated guess.
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