Monday, October 20, 2008

The homemade Lamborghini

I know about crazy guys and cars. I've had the line of work for it. I've had the dad for it.

At one point in my early adolescence, my father held title on 18 cars, perhaps half of them running well enough to reliably complete a grocery store trip, and a third of them parked around the cul-de-sac adjacent to our house.

He's been trumped, and handily.

Now imagine a guy who saw The Cannonball Run—particularly the Lamborghini Countach featured therein—and decided "got to have one of those. I think I'll build it in my basement."

Behold: the from-scratch, TIG-welded, 10-years-in-the-making, blow-the-side-of-your-house-away-to-get-it-out Lamborghini Countach (click to follow for many more pictures):

That's just nuts. I have a big ol' man-crush on this guy.

Pause for a moment and love America with me.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Real men drive minivans

I've never liked SUVs much. I don't care for their ride, their handling, or their outward visibility, and they don't make good use of space. As far as I'm concerned, the price of gasoline is only another reason to dislike them. I sold GMC trucks for almost a year once upon a time, and I never sold a single Suburban. I'm sure it was because I didn't like them, and it came out in my presentation.

I should clarify. Anymore, the term SUV may mean the truck-based vehicle I describe above, or it may mean a tall car, built on car mechanicals. Many of those are better, but for many uses they're still inferior to the uncoolest vehicle on the road: the minivan.

Are you too cool for a minivan? I'm not. Lea's had a Honda Odyssey for four years, and I love it. It drives beautifully, whether around town or on the interstate, and it gets my entire family and all of their stuff to the beach in air-conditioned comfort, delivering a reliable 25 mpg at 77 mph.

No other kind of vehicle on the road will do that. Real men (and women) aren't afraid to select the right tool for the job, and for the best combination of efficiency, space, and comfort, you can't beat a minivan.

There are legitimate uses for big SUVs. Folks have horses, travel trailers, boats, or whatever, and a truck-based SUV buries a minivan for towing. If you tow and transport more than two other people at the same time, that Tahoe makes sense. Off-road and transporting folks? SUV again. Moving folks around construction sites and towing equipment? You'll kill a minivan in two months doing that. You need an SUV.

If you lack such a confluence of needs and still drive an SUV, it's an image thing. It has to be. It doesn't make practical sense. To be sure, $4 gasoline has caused many SUV owners to question just how important said image is, and that's a good thing.

There isn't a bad minivan on the market, though the aforementioned Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna, and the Chrysler offerings are the leaders. If you've been using an SUV as a light-duty family vehicle and now want out, take the minivan challenge.

Friday, August 1, 2008

GM loses $15.5 billion in the second quarter

General Motors announced a quarterly loss of $15.5 billion today. Folks, in the preceding 90 days, GM lost almost $2,000 per second.

I have them at 18 months—tops—before they file for bankruptcy.

The ongoing fracas with the UAW over retiree benefits may have ultimately forced Chapter 11 anyway. But it's $4 gasoline, and GM with a lineup full of huge trucks and few competitive fuel-efficient cars, that's hastening the demise.

While Toyota was figuring out how to make money on the Prius, and Honda was building and maintaining the most fuel-efficient lineup available, GM was riding five-digit per-unit profits on H2s and Escalades, and apparently looking all of two weeks down the calendar when determining long-term vision and goals.

Their environmentally friendly savior is the Volt, a hybrid sedan that will go 100 miles on electricity alone. It's two years away, and will likely top $40,000 when it finally arrives. Smell like a volume model to you?

It makes me sad to see an American icon like GM come to this, but hopefully they'll survive (and without a government bailout).

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Nissan Versa at 1000 miles

Well, we're at (almost) one month since we took delivery of our 2008 Nissan Versa 1.8SL sedan. This is our third car, intended for adults leaving the house. I commute in it, and Lea takes it in the evenings to visit friends, to the store, or whatever. It clicked over 1000 miles this weekend. Here are my early impressions.

I haven't driven a small car daily since 1995, and I adjusted to the low seating position quickly, but the "less and closer" aspect of it has taken some reorientation. For example, I find the compressor loud. For all I know it's not any louder than the compressor in my F-150, but in the Versa, it's closer to me, and there is less material between me and it. I've tried to consider this reasonably, and not penalize the car unnecessarily just for being little.

That said, we are at the entry level, and if there is skimping to be found in a manufacturer's lineup, it will be here. Anyone can build a decent expensive car; what does a manufacturer do with its most price-sensitive offering?

Which jail has the best food? Heh.

I'm pleased to report that build quality seems high. Panel gaps are close and uniform. The hood, trunk, and doors all work fluidly, and feel long-haulish. I've found two little bits of trash in the paint, but no orange-peel, and it's uniformly applied (and even slight discrepancies are easy to spot in silver). The interior presents pleasing textures and colors, with nothing screaming "cheap" (and that's historically a weak spot for inexpensive cars).

I still don't think it's exactly pretty, but I do find it far more dignified-looking than many of its market peers. It does have a cute butt.

The Versa isn't generally known as a handler even in this entry-level market segment, but it's acceptable. There is some body roll, and the tires are about as aggressive as newborn hamsters, but it's fine day to day and doesn't feel handicapped. Anyone coming out of a much larger vehicle will find it positively nimble. It wanders a bit in crosswinds because of its high profile. I was concerned that the electric power steering would feel artificial, but it's uniform and responsive without descending into darty.

The ride has a slight bias toward comfort at the expense of feel, but given the Versa's non-sporting ambitions, that's not a penalty. It's a quiet cabin at speed. Sounds of the road are isolated well, and engine noise is only noticeable under acceleration. There is a little wind noise. Visibility is outstanding.

The accelerator travel seems designed to deliver economical operation. However, if you put your foot in it, adequate power is there to merge or pass on a two-lane. Braking is linear and without drama. Thankfully, I haven't experienced the anti-lock yet (incidentally, that's a standalone $250 option and shouldn't be). The automatic transaxle matches its operation to the current driving style effectively, never calling attention to itself. I don't think there is any exceptional performance to be found here, but as with the handling, it never feels handicapped.

The car lacks a temperature gauge; instead there is a blue lamp that indicates the engine coolant is cold, and a red one that indicates overheating. The blue one goes out at 130 ºF.

I've checked the fuel mileage on two tanks, and measured 26 and 27 mpg in mixed driving. This is in line with my expectations, though I'm hoping for a bit of improvement as the engine settles. The low fuel warning illuminates with two gallons remaining in the 13.2-gallon tank. The fuel gauge is mostly optimistic, and starts reading reasonably accurately at about three-eighths of a tank.

The car's killer feature is its people space. The Versa seats four adults luxuriously, and I mean a six-footer can get comfortable in the driver's seat, and another six-footer can sit behind him, and his knees don't touch the front seat back. In fact, it's rated by the EPA as a midsize car based on its interior volume. (There is a seat belt in the center rear, but the car is still rather narrow, and I doubt three adults in the back seat would be comfortable for long.)

Storage is also good. The Versa has a respectable trunk and an enormous glove compartment, and the covered storage above the stereo is convenient. There are deep and wide bins in each of the door bottoms, and the armrest has a shallow compartment. My only nit here is that the cubbies in the center console aren't particularly inspired. I'd have preferred another covered compartment here; instead they are simple open depressions that aren't particularly easy to reach.

Here are my impressions of the electrics, on an excellent through poor scale.

Cruise control. Easy to use and flawlessly unobtrusive in operation.
Headlights. Bright and broad, with excellent front and side visibility.
Power mirrors. No complaints; familiar three-position switch and directional pad.
Power windows. Rapid, smooth, and quiet--and the rear windows go all the way down.

Air conditioning. Controls are easy to use (large rotary dials for temperature, airflow, and fan speed; a slide for selecting fresh or recirculate; and a button for the A/C itself). Cooling is good, but a click or two short of top-notch. The fan is quiet.
Windshield wipers. Effective, but odd-looking, as the passenger-side wiper is half the size of the driver's-side wiper. Aesthetically I'd have preferred to see this problem solved with "bat-wing" wipers that start from the center, or even with a one-wiper setup fixed in the middle. Controls use a familiar right-side stalk scheme.

Keyless locking and unlocking. Works fine, but only from about 25 feet. My F-150 easily triples this; the three Hondas I've owned at least double it. Not a problem day to day, but more range would improve the utility of the panic feature.
Stereo. Sound quality is reasonable, but the top of the volume range could easily be increased 50%. There is an optional upgrade with a subwoofer, and I'd recommend that. I enjoy having the ability to read MP3 CDs, and the AUX jack is nice to have. Radio reception is good on both bands. Controls are reasonably intuitive. The speed-sensitive volume control is way too prominent, even at the lowest setting.

Horn. I'm sure it's loud enough to be within regulation, but it's single-note and thoroughly unassertive-sounding. I may change it, actually.
Accessory power outlet. Location is acceptable (between the seats, adjacent to the parking brake handle), but it's only powered when the ignition is on, which makes it nearly useless for the way I most often use one (charging telephone and iPod when the car is unoccupied). This should have been always on, with battery rundown protection.
Rear window defroster. It cleared the inside of the backlight during a pop-up thunderstorm, but it took more than eight minutes to do it. Perhaps it will be better with ice, which (obviously) I haven't yet tested, but it's unimpressive so far.

I haven't encountered a button, switch, knob, or lever that I would describe as poor.

In summary, so far I think we made a good decision in selecting the Versa over its competitors. We sought a capable and comfortable commuting/in-town car with reasonable fuel economy, and we're pleased. (Making half the car payment in fuel savings alone is a persuasive detail as well.) It's a serious product, and worthy of your consideration.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Whither 50 mpg?

You just might have noticed that gasoline has gotten a lot more expensive.

I can remember paying $.789 per gallon as recently as March 1998. On a trip to Atlanta, I ran my Oldsmobile Intrigue, a V6-powered medium-large sedan, to below the E and filled it up for $13. That was just ten years ago. Hard to believe, isn't it?

Remember when "five bucks' worth" would haul a car full of teenagers around all evening?

Now that fill-ups are about as pleasant as prostate exams, I've heard "why can't these manufacturers build me a truly fuel-efficient car? Why, I had a Honda CRX 20 years ago that was rated at 50 mpg!" or a similar sentiment, more than once. Why can't they? Two big reasons.

The first is that EPA fuel economy estimates are now calculated differently. The old methods were a joke, figuring highway numbers at 45 mph with no air conditioning, and other similarly ridiculous criteria. The new numbers are intended to reflect actual conditions much more accurately. Consequently, they're actually attainable by mere mortals, but they're also not nearly as stratospheric as they once were.

The second is that cars have seriously porked out, and that's your fault. Mine? Yes, yours. What the hell do you mean, Bo? Two sides of that story:
  • Today cars must comply with a whole host of federal standards, primarily safety- and emissions-related, that didn't exist when that CRX was prowling the streets. Side-impact protection? Frontal offset crash protection? Airbags? Low Emission Vehicle certification? More metal, more metal, more metal, and more metal. Why is it your fault? You elected Congress, did you not? I'm not saying these federal standards are bad things on balance, but they aren't free, folks.
  • Additionally, our sybaritic standards have increased dramatically over the past 20 to 30 years. Today's typical "stripper" automobile contains a level of equipment more in line with what a family sedan contained in 1985. Today's "mainstream" family sedan is often a nicer place to be than the living room in the home to which it's driven. And today's luxury automobile was barely conceivable two decades ago. You want your real wood and leather, your mega-CD changers, your automatic climate control, your power everything, your navigation systems, your DVD players, your Bluetooth connectivity, your seat heaters, and the rest of it. I understand, because I like the toys too. But again, they aren't free.
The first-generation (1984-87) CRX HF weighed 1713 lbs. The current Toyota Yaris 3-door, which does have a back seat but is probably the closest current market analog to that car, weighs 2293. A Hyundai Accent comes in at 2496. Even a bare-bones Smart fortwo weighs 1808 lbs. More weight burns more gasoline. Period.

I mentioned in the previous post that we had added a Nissan Versa to the fleet at my house (review coming soon). It's unambiguously a small car. We intend for it to be the car for a single adult at our house, which means I'll drive it to work, and Lea will drive it in the evening to visit friends, make a Target run, or whatever. I'll consider it a highly successful addition if I can get 30 mpg out of it, though I'll settle for 28 without making any further effort.

It weighs 2745 lbs, which is almost exactly what a 1991 Honda Accord weighs.

What to do?

First, adjust your expectations. The EPA numbers of days gone by were largely fantasies, and cars do a lot more now than they did then. Second, make sure you're doing the things that have always made sense and still do—avoid jackrabbit starts, brake intelligently, maintain correct tire pressure, and the like. Third, know that you can move deep into the 40s on mpg and perhaps touch 50 from time to time with a current offering, but as of today it takes a hybrid, and it must be driven carefully. Unfortunately, there isn't yet one under $20,000 that will give you the numbers.

Finally, and most importantly, realize that the upward shift in gasoline prices is almost certainly permanent. The price may come down some, but $1.50/gallon is gone forever. Also realize that oil is going to matter for quite some time to come. Manufacturers are working feverishly to bring better battery technologies to market, both for hybrids and for pure electric vehicles, and hydrogen vehicles are coming, but not tomorrow.

For several more years, it's petroleum, boys and girls. Drive smartly.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Versa is coming

Well, we're almost certainly going to add a third car tonight. (Updated: We did it. The car makes one hell of a first impression. I was only marginally excited, and I'm up to moderately excited.)

We started poking around for a $3000 beater that got decent gas mileage—something for me to drive to work, and for either of us to drive in the evenings. Thing is, we're hardly the first folks to have that idea, and $4 gas has inflated resale values significantly. Great for sellers; not so much for buyers.

So we're going to drive a Nissan Versa 1.8SL sedan this evening, and barring an unexpectedly offensive test drive, we'll buy it.
This is not what I had in mind for my next new car purchase. I envisioned driving my F-150 for another year or two and buying a 2010 Accord coupe, with the V6 and 6-speed manual. However, I also didn't count on spending $250 monthly to keep the F-150 fueled. When we figured out we could come up with half of the car payment just in fuel savings, it wasn't too tough to make the call.

And the Versa's not so bad. It still looks like a clown car—big, Deputy Dawg greenhouse and little tiny black Cheerios for tires—but it's not as offensive-looking to me as some of the other offerings in this segment. I was pleased with the level of equipment available. The rags say it's not a great handler—body roll from the tallness and what-not—but I expect it'll feel plenty spry to me after coming out of a half-ton crew-cab pickup.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about it in the weeks to come.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cadillac prepares to lop its own head off

I never trust General Motors to act in its own best interest. The company's history—at least the past four decades or so—is riddled with tales of doing the wrong thing too long and the right thing not long enough.

In one of my earliest posts on Cowl Shake, I applauded Cadillac's rebirth as a meaningful world player. Near the end of the piece, I wrote "Though history is less than fully encouraging, let's hope GM leaves the division alone."

Wishful thinking, it seems. According to this Jamie Kitman column, Cadillac is going to kill its signature Northstar V8 without replacing it. So, having steadily rebuilt Cadillac's credibility with a steady stream of sound product decisions, GM is now content to march the division out back and lop its head off.

I'm certain that thoroughly reasonable people have made this decision. After all, a V8 is not a necessity, and we're in the days of $4 gasoline. But luxury cars are not about reason. Moreover, the effect of its presence in the lineup is more subjective than objective. It need not be a high-volume engine to have the desired halo effect. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lexus, Infiniti—all have V8s (or larger!) in their respective lineups, but all make their volume on smaller engines.

I suppose Cadillac will still have it over Lincoln, small victory though that is.

One hopes Kitman's assessment is overly pessimistic. After all, if Cadillac kills the Northstar and doesn't replace it, it doesn't mean they can't continue to commandeer a corporate V8 when needed. Surely they're not going to try to pitch us a turbo V6 Escalade, for example?

Do the right thing, GM. Perform above expectations. Keep the Cadillac V8.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How easy can you take it in an F-150 SuperCrew?

Five years ago I bought an F-150 SuperCrew with a 5.4L V8 engine. My dad asked me to help him sell it. Instead I drove it for a day and a half and announced I was buying it.

Nobody could believe it. At the time my daily driver was a blue-on-blue Accord EX sedan with a manual transmission, and I loved it. And now I'm getting a full-size crew-cab pickup? Everyone expected me to drive the truck for a year or so, then dump it for another Honda, having learned an expensive lesson in late-model depreciation.

Nope. There it is in the garage. It's closing on 106K miles now, 68K of which are mine. It runs perfectly. In five years, in addition to normal maintenance, all I've done is replace an A/C line and the parking brake cable. It's a marvelous vehicle. I love my truck.

Well, there is one little thing. It seems I'm spending $3,000 annually on gasoline.

Now I'm not going to get into the ins and outs of why oil prices are where they are. I'm not even going to complain about it, really. I have been blessed with success sufficient to afford an $85 fill-up every ten days, and I really do thank God for the opportunity every time I do it.

However, that doesn't mean I enjoy it.

Lea and I are going to buy a third car soon. It may be a beater, or we may get something new, but it's going to get excellent gas mileage. I'll drive it to work, and she'll drive it at night. It's a car for when we're driving alone, or when we have only one child with us, dig? I'm looking forward to having it.

But it's going to be a month or two before we do it. In the meantime, as I was watching the numbers whirl dizzyingly at the gas pump yesterday, I decided I'd use this tankful to see what sort of fuel economy I could get, driving very carefully. I consistently average 15.5 mpg; how much can I improve it?

I'm not sure what I can reasonably expect. My dad was an excellent driving instructor, and I got extended lessons not only in safety but in efficiency. (And after I actually bought a few tanks of gas with "my own money," the jackrabbit starts did indeed become fewer and farther between.) The point is I'm already driving sensibly in terms of pointless acceleration, anticipating traffic signals, and the like.

So what can obsessive and meticulous attention do for me? If I can even get to 17 mpg, that would save me about $20 a month. We'll see.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Smart fortwo: Cute, can't hold conversation

The Smart is here.
Oh, is it ever adorable. Those eyes, that sidestep, and that cute little butt? Are you kidding? Chalk up 200,000 units on looks.

But Smart cars will ultimately fail in the U.S. because they have no trump. They bring the cute, but nothing else. Cute doesn't sustain.

She may have a killer body and do-me eyes, but folks, if you can't stand to talk to her the next morning, she's not going to last long.

And once the shadows part, you can't stand to talk to this car.

You can take your lady with you, but you can't take the luggage for that long weekend. You can take your son to a ball game, but his friend will have to stay home. Stay off the interstates; you have neither the top speed nor the acceleration for them. Oh, and don't worry about all of those 5,000-lb. SUVs with which you're sharing the road.

Doubtless, it's easy to park. But how many half-spaces are out there? This is the U.S. we're talking about, remember. Might make some small sense in New York or Boston, but if you're there, how badly do you want a car anyway?

What about the cute...and a low price? That would work. If we were talking about a coupe at $7995 and a convertible at $9995, Smart's American future would be assured.

What about the cute...and incredible fuel economy? That would work too. At 60 or 70 mpg, Smart's a no-brainer.

What about the cute...and an unprecedented warranty? Say 10 years, unlimited mileage, bumper to bumper? Slam-dunk.

Alas, we are talking neither inexpensive ($12K and up), nor particularly thrifty (33 mpg city/41 mpg highway). And Smart brings the worst warranty in the business to the table (2 years/24,000 miles).

That's the price and fuel economy territory of things like the Toyota Yaris, the Nissan Versa, and the Honda Fit. All of these also offer "luxuries" like back seats, luggage room, interstate performance, and a chance of surviving that head-on with the Escalade.

Smart's got cute, and in spades. But there's nothing else. Among a substantial percentage of early Smart adopters, I predict slow, seething resentment at what could have been had for the proffered $12-17K. There will be thoughts of the weekend getaways that can't be, the foursomes that can't be driven to the concert, and the new television that can't be driven home. Yet every morning, that smiling face will greet...and grate. Finally, we'll see ads like this:

2009 Smart fortwo, 14K miles. Good shape except for the front end, which has been beat to hell with an aluminum baseball bat. Make offer.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Brock Yates fired; lands at

Brock Yates, the Hunter S. Thompson of automotive journalism, was fired from Car and Driver recently for costing too much. His first column at is here.

I'm looking forward to reading his column, but I hope he reins in the swearing a bit. I don't mind it when it serves the piece—let's face it, a guy needs an F-word once in a while—but his inaugural column drips with "I can curse now, so I'm going to," and it's unbecoming. Yates is a better writer than that.