Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lexus LS 460 -- All New Flagship

When Toyota introduced its new luxury line in 1989, there was some skepticism. Could they really deliver a luxury car to compete with the established highline cars of the day, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW? Didn’t Toyota build reliable economy cars?

Well, now we know. Lexus has been a huge success, and the new LS 460 is the fourth generation of the Lexus flagship sedan.

As I walked up to my Noble Spinel Mica (deep red) test vehicle, I could see that this car is completely redone. The original LS copied the Mercedes look, but now the LS joins its brethren in adopting Lexus’ L-finesse design language. Styled at Toyota’s Global Design center in Tokyo, it sports more dynamic sculpting from nose to tail while still retaining a dignified presence.

The more you look at the LS the more interesting design details pop out. The head and tail lamps bend way around the sides of the car. The taillamps protrude slightly from the sheet metal above them, and bend to follow the slight edge of the flat rear surface of the trunk. Up front, crystalline headlamps are just one upscale element. The hood line flows into the trapezoidal grille and down through the bumper for a forceful V shape.

As the LS has developed, it has become significantly more powerful. This new model uses an all-new 4.6-liter V8 that produces a mighty 380 horsepower and 367 lb.-ft. of torque. That pushes the 4,200-pound rear-wheel-drive sedan along from zero to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds. And, the LS claims fuel economy of 19 City, 27 Highway. I averaged 17.1 mpg in a week of mixed driving (without zero-to-60 speed tests).

Lexus has paired this fine engine with the world’s first eight-speed automatic. Lexus claims that this ensures rapid take-off in the low gears but the best possible fuel economy and quietness in the upper gears. You never feel the gear changes with this high-tech unit, either.

The EPA rates the big Lexus at 7 for Air Pollution and 6 for Greenhouse Gases—quite good scores considering the size and power of this car. So, you can have it both ways—luxury and power combined with reasonable emissions.

The interior of the LS 460 is lovely to behold. The leather-covered seats coddle and the rich genuine-wood trim looks appropriate to a flagship. The center stack bulges with buttons that are large enough to hit correctly. Fit and finish are, of course, superb.

As is becoming increasingly common, the starter is a button. You can keep your key in your pocket and just push this button to start the car. I wasn’t able to figure out how to listen to the radio with the ignition off, however.

The most impressive feature of the interior is one you can’t see—silence. The Lexus folks spent a lot of time hunting down sources of unwanted vibrations and neutralizing them. They also made sure that the things that do make a noise, such as the power window motors, have the most pleasant sound possible. Even the door slam was put under the microscope.

The LS is filled with up-to-the-minute technology. The Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) stability system integrates and manages a batch of subsystems that monitor sensors and make adjustments automatically to keep things safe and secure. The driver and passengers receive these benefits without having to do a thing.

The Adaptive Front lighting System (AFS) swivels the headlamps in the direction of a turn. The Advanced Parking Guidance System (APGS) uses the backup camera, parking sonar sensors, and electric steering system to parallel park the LS for you. All you control in the process is the speed, using the brake.

For your ears, the optional Mark Levinson audio system offers an incredible 19 speakers among its many advanced features. You don’t need to go to the concert hall anymore.

The LS 460 is a grand vehicle, but if you want even more space for rear-seat passengers, opt for the new long-wheelbase LS 460 L. Besides gaining nearly five inches of legroom in back, the L model comes loaded with extras, including XM Radio with real time traffic, power door closers, and lots more.

The LS 460 starts at $61,000. My tester had about $10,000 worth of extras, including the aforementioned sensational audio system and the Comfort Plus Package. The latter package adds power rear seats with memory, a heated steering wheel, power rear sunshade, and more. The sticker stopped at $71,875.

What’s not to like with this kind of vehicle? Well, it’s hard to find a flaw. With the incredible work done to make the car perfect, Toyota may have actually succeeded. But it’s so quiet and smooth, how do you even know you’re driving it?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Los Angeles Auto Show 2007

The Los Angeles Auto Show is one of the biggest in the United States, and the first major show of the season. It features introductions of new production and concept vehicles before they are available to the public.

I had never attended a major show before, but I was determined to change that this year. So, I got up early and flew Southwest down for the two days reserved for the automotive press before the show opens to the public.

An eager horde of reporters converged on the beautifully staged displays and crowded together for 28 different press conferences. We plowed through the complimentary breakfasts and lunches and ran back out for more activity.

The beauty of seeing the show this way is that everyone is available to talk with you. That meant that I could have tea with Ian Robertson, the chairman and chief executive of Rolls-Royce. I sat inside the new MINI Clubman and chatted with the vice president of MINI, Jim McDowell. At Bentley, I got a tour around the 600-horsepower Continental GT Speed from the chief designer of the car, Raul Pires; I also spoke with Bentley’s North American Marketing chief, Julian Jenkins. Both Rolls-Royce and Bentley are doing just fine, thank you.

Later, the chief designer of Jaguar joined me inside a Jaguar and discussed his newest project, the brand new XF performance sedan. Jaguar’s chief engineer for the XF project, Mick Mohan, was in the back seat adding commentary on how this beautiful vehicle got produced. Just before I left the Convention Center I spent time with Dennis Glavis, who has a lifetime of driving and working with Morgans, the amazingly powerful yet traditional sports cars.

But the show wasn’t only about incredibly powerful and expensive cars. At the Volkswagen stand they showed the space up! blue. This zero emissions concept, which resembles a tiny VW microbus, uses a the world’s first high temperature fuel cell and can go up to 65 miles on electricity alone. Its doors swing open from the outer edges on both sides, creating a complete see-through vehicle. Volkswagen may sell this amazing little car here in a couple years in some form.

Actually, green cars were a major feature of this year’s show. Notable here was Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle. Hydrogen cars have not only been out of reach of the public as they go through development, they’ve been pretty utilitarian looking as well. Not the Clarity. It’s a beautiful 21st-century ride and it will be leased in small but significant quantities to Southern Californians starting next summer for $600/month for three years. Why none in the San Francisco Bay Area yet? No place to fill up with hydrogen.

On the morning of the second press day, the Green Car Journal presented its Green Car of the Year award to the huge Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid. With its 6.0-liter gas/electric powertrain, the hybrid Tahoe gets 50 percent better mileage than the standard Tahoe, which uses a 5.3-liter V-8. Mileage of 21 City is impressive—you get a huge 7-passenger family hauler that drinks gas like a Toyota Camry four-cylinder sedan. Dodge showed its hybrid Durango, which will offer another choice for the same buyers.

After the Green Car award presentation, California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger spoke with throngs of journalists about his enthusiasm for green vehicles in Caleeforneeah, and then cruised through the show with his retinue of photographers and bodyguards. I ran into him at the BMW stand and later at the Bentley area. I told people he was following me.

I communed with my personal favorite, the MINI Clubman. This slightly longer MINI, which debuts early next year, features nine-and-a-half extra inches of length and more than three additional inches of wheelbase. This gives rear passengers much more legroom and easier access through a passenger side extra door that flips open. The back of the car features twin “barn doors” that spring open with a gentle flip of the lever and add lots of loading capacity and utility. Prices will not be much more than the standard little MINIs.

Everyone was friendly. I struck up a conversation with Elizabeth, who was working at the Yokohama Tire stand. She was very excited about an audition she had coming up for a part in a small film. That’s LA for you. The Yokohama display featured a tire made with a high percentage of orange oil, which not only results in a very grippy and better-smelling tire, but uses much less petroleum in its manufacture.

The show was an exhausting but exhilarating experience. I’m already planning to attend next year.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Find Me a Home in Your Heart

I wrote this song about a guy who fell in love with a beautiful real estate agent.

For fifteen years she's worked in real estate
She's got it down to a fine art
For me the business plan is simple
Find me a home in your heart.

I'm not interested in condominiums
Unless the agent is a part
You're holding my heart in escrow
Find me a home in your heart.

My love for you is an investment
In time and energy and pain
I want to move into your neighborhood
You're my beloved capital gain.

Just say the word and we can close the deal
And let all the paperwork start
I'll sign a hundred pounds of documents if it'll
Buy me a home in your heart.

Friday, November 9, 2007

21 Ways to Drive Green (Some Aren't Expensive)

Do you want to cut back on harmful emissions and get good fuel mileage while you drive? Here are 10 hybrid and 11 non-hybrid vehicles you can buy—new or used— to lower your impact on the environment and your gasoline bill. And some of them are quite affordable.

Top Green Vehicles -- Ten Hybrids Plus One

Let’s start with the ten planet-saving hybrids. These cars achieve the top scores for cleanliness and economy thanks to their gasoline/electric powertrains. All of these models achieve a 9 or 10 out of 10 on both of the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide scores: Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases. Fuel mileage ranges from 48 City/45 Highway for the top-rated Prius to 28 City/25 Highway for the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX.

This list includes an eleventh member, the Honda Civic GX, which burns compressed natural gas (CNG). Although it is not a hybrid, its excellent EPA Green Vehicle Guide scores (9/9) and fuel mileage of 26 City/31 Highway place it in this group.

The list is in order of fuel economy, with the best at the top. The years in which the vehicle was sold are shown. Please note that there are major differences in the size, functionality, and price of these cars. For example, the Prius is a midsized four-door hatchback, the Insight is a tiny two seater, and the Lexus RX 400h is an expensive luxury crossover.

1. Toyota Prius – 2001-08
2. Honda Insight – 2001-2006
3. Honda Civic – 2003-08
4. Nissan Altima – 2007-08
5. Ford Escape – 2005-08 (same as Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner)
6. Mazda Tribute – 2006, 2008
7. Mercury Mariner – 2006-2008
8. Toyota Camry – 2007-08
9. Toyota Highlander – 2006-08
10. Lexus RX 400h – 2006-08
11. Honda Civic CNG – 2001-08

Top Ten Non-Hybrid Vehicles to Save the Planet

Here is a list of 10 cars with excellent green credentials that, by eliminating the hybrid packaging, are less expensive, even when new. Most are compact or subcompact sedans, although the Nissan Altima is a midsized car. These vehicles all earned a 9 for the Air Pollution score in the EPA Green Vehicle Guide and a 9 or an 8 for Greenhouse Gases. Fuel economy ranges from 25 City/33 Highway to 22/32, just below the scores of the cars on the hybrid list. Again, entries are listed in order with the best fuel economy at the top.

Nissan Sentra – 2001-05
Hyundai Elantra – 2007-08
Ford Focus – 2006-08
Mazda3 – 2004-08
Honda Civic – 2006-08
Pontiac G5 – 2008 (same as Chevrolet Cobalt)
Chevrolet Cobalt – 2008
Kia Spectra – 2007-08
Saturn Ion – 2006-07
Nissan Altima – 2007-08

It Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune

You don’t have to spend a lot of green to go green. A 2008 Kia Spectra LX with manual transmission starts at just $13,520, including destination charges. Or, choose an older model of any of these cars and it can be a downright deal. For example, a 2003 Nissan Sentra XE with a five-speed manual, in excellent condition, has a retail value of $8,845 according to the Kelley Blue Book. Private sellers will probably charge less.

For complete information, go to the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide at http://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/Index.do.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bentley GTC: Mission Incredible

“Good morning, Mr. Schaefer. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to drive our Glacier White Bentley GTC from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Tomorrow.”

Before the tape could self destruct, I accepted. Before long, the imposing, 5,500-pound Bentley stood in my driveway, gleaming like a beacon for my neighbors. I opened the solid door to present a glimpse of the glorious wood and leather within. I raised the hood to expose the grand six-liter, twin-turbocharged, 552-horsepower W12 engine.

I chauffeured my teenage son to his weightlifting group. His pals surrounded the car and started snapping away with their cell phone cameras. All of the 14-year olds knew exactly what the car was, but had never seen one in the flesh.

The next morning, I left home at 7:40 a.m., hoping to avoid some of the perils of the morning commute. Sitting in the royal comfort of the Bentley’s exquisite leather chairs was a joy, despite the freeway crawl. The thick steering wheel, with its chrome Bentley wings logo, wears the same premium hide as the seats, tonneau, and top roll, and is sensuous to the touch.

My tester was upgraded to the premium Mulliner Chestnut veneer on the dash, doors and rear quarter panels. The gleaming metallic air vents open with “organ stop” pull levers. A Breitling timepiece stands center stage amidst the chestnut.

After a while, the road began to open up, and I tapped the Bentley’s stainless steel foot pedals to feel its muscle. The brawny engine is whisper quiet loafing along at 1,800 rpm at 65 miles per hour. Push the rpms up a notch, and you can hear the deep rumble of the W12 stirring, hoping for a chance to step it up.

I tried the optional seat massager, which is much like the ones you play with at the Sharper Image store in the mall. This is, of course, to keep you alert, not to put you to sleep.

The GTC comes with an adjustable ride height and four-way suspension settings. I tried the suspension control. Setting #1 is the softest, the default setting is #2—not too cushy but not the sportiest, #3 is moderately sporty and #4 is very sporty. On the freeway, it didn’t seem to make much difference—but #1 allowed the nearly three-ton car to float slightly over road changes. I liked #2 better.

I made my first stop at the charming Carmel Highlands Station and General Store. As I drank a latte that Bob Conat, the proprietor, had prepared for me, he and his friend Carl acted much as my neighbors had done the day before.

I decided to drop the top as I passed through the trees near Carmel. The seven-bow, triple insulated lid folds or restores itself in less than half a minute. It is certainly the best insulated cloth top I’ve ever experienced, and it looks and feels like a coupe from the inside when it’s up. You can choose from multiple colors to match your fancy.

As I rolled along the Pacific Coast Highway and the road grew curvier, I tried suspension setting level #3. The car drove like a slot car on the curves—level and stable—in the quick patches. Surely the continuous all-wheel drive with Torsen center differential helped, and I was grateful for the enormous ventilated disc brakes with ABS, Brake Force Distribution, and Brake Assist.

Of course, when you’re in a car like this, all other vehicles are slow moving. I got stuck behind minivans filled with careful families, CalTrans workers in orange pickups, and even a Bekins moving van. But when the road was open, that Bentley flew.

I had lunch in scenic Cambria. As I sought parking, I happened upon Vintage Automobilia (812-A Cornwall Street), Peter Zobian’s shop full of transportation antiques and collectibles. As the proprietor admired the Bentley, I perused his delightful treasure trove.

After lunch, I headed east on Highway 46 toward Paso Robles. I decided to drop the top again as I climbed effortlessly to 1,782 feet. But not long after, the happiness faded as I came upon road construction. With half the road blocked, I began to sit and bake, so, before I passed the smoky tar patch, I put the top back up—while rolling along at 15 miles per hour! The car allows this under 20 mph.

When I hit Highway 101, I blasted south at a pretty steady 80 mph. Still no sore tailbone or legs, and I was still loving the firm but compliant suspension and the muted rumble of the big twin-turbocharged 12.

Passing through Santa Barbara, I checked in with my Southern California contacts. They predicted a three hour trip ahead of me, but I made it in two, on time. At the airport, I turned over the car to Sandy Fritz and headed up the escalators. OOPS! I still had the electronic key in my pocket! I scurried down to curbside and called Sandy back to grab it. Mission accomplished!

As I drove along on my 452-mile adventure, I realized something. When you’re piloting a Bentley, you are probably seated in the finest car that you can see around you—all the time. I felt above it all, in supreme comfort, with the power to do anything. That’s what you get for your $201,615.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Two Reasons to Love Automotive Electronic Technology

In 16 years of automotive testing, I have often mentioned a feature in a car, for example, airbags, without ever, thank goodness, needing to use it. However, in the last few days, two car-related electronic marvels have improved the lives of me, my family, and, indirectly, the planet.

On Friday, a light lit up on the instrument panel of my 2008 Scion XD test car. It looked like the cross-section of a tire with an explanation point. I assumed it meant a loss in air pressure, so I got out and examined all four tires. They looked fine to me, so I continued on my way.

Saturday morning, when the tires were cold, I pulled out my trusty pressure gauge and discovered that all four tires had 26 psi of air in them, which seemed OK. But the light stayed on.

Well, consulting the owner’s manual, I discovered that the light meant, as I suspected, low air pressure. It made more sense when I consulted the page with recommended air pressures. It showed 33 psi. That meant that all four tires were low! I put three quarters into the air machine at my local 76 station and topped off the tires, and the light disappeared.

Proper tire inflation is more important than you might think. From a safety standpoint, it keeps the tire firmly set in the wheel, puts less stress on the tire, and promotes better handling. It also improves fuel economy, which in turn saves money at the pump and benefits air quality. Properly inflated tires last longer, which is another money saver, and sends fewer tires to landfills.

Although experts recommend checking tire pressure regularly, most of us don’t. Now, even in one of the least expensive cars on the market, you can be reminded to do what’s right. Some of the fancier models even give you pressure readings, saving you a messy time with the fuel gauge.

I am awakened on Sunday at 7:02 a.m. by a phone call from my wife, who is on a visit to Florida (where it happens to be a much more acceptable 10:02 a.m.). She has locked her car keys in the trunk of her rented Buick Lucerne. My wife can handle pretty much anything, but she was obviously upset and I knew how to help her.

She was driving a brand new GM car, an upscale one at that, so I assumed that it had OnStar. I calmly asked my wife to call the rental car company, who could then contact the OnStar folks to have them unlock the car for her remotely. Within a few minutes I got a call back. The crisis was solved and a day of sightseeing was preserved.

So, if you’re driving an old 20th-century car, maybe it’s time to upgrade. Today’s cars are cleaner, safer, and come with features you’ll be glad you have, especially when you need them.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

2008 Scion XB -- The New Box

When Toyota introduced their brand new Scion brand in 2003 as 2004 models, one of the cars was a box. Known as the xB, it caught on and has become an icon with the young tuner crowd.

Fast forward to 2007. A new 2008 xB has arrived, and, although it’s still a box, it’s a much bigger one. It’s a foot longer, nearly three inches wider, and sits on a four-inch longer wheelbase. Oh, and it weighs 600 pounds more—at just over a ton and a half. It looks twice as big as the old model, thanks to rounded corners, bolder wheelwells, and a higher beltline.

At least the advertising folks understand that nobody is looking for beauty here. The face is flat as a washing machine, but wears long headlamps that wrap boldly around the corners. The bumper features vertical scoops that look like they’re for front brake cooling; and the upper and lower grille textures don’t match. The windshield remains defiantly vertical compared to nearly every other car on the road, including the xB’s new sibling, the xD.

Inside, the center instrument pod remains, but now it is neatly broken into a series of four small gauges. Everything about the new xB is bigger, tougher, and feels more like a miniature Hummer than a pint size van. Materials remain inexpensive but not cheap-looking, black plastic is offset by metallic silver plastic, the cloth seats are comfortable, and it’s overall a nice place to sit while driving down the road.

Moving is one thing the xB really does well now, because the old anemic 103-horsepower engine has been replaced by the 158-horse powerplant out of the shapely Scion tC coupe. With a manual five or sequential-shift four-speed automatic, the front-wheel-drive car has surprising go-power.

The bigger engine earns EPA numbers of 22 City, 28 Highway. I averaged 22.3 mpg, which is not econobox territory, but is nearly twice what I got in two previous weeks of driving giant SUVs. Also, the EPA Green Vehicle Guide gives the new box a pair of 7’s—in Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases, which makes it a Smartway recommended buy.

Scion keeps its monospec roots. That means when you order your xB, you choose only the transmission and one of six colors. The paint list includes Super White, Classic Silver Metallic, Black Sand Pearl, and the more riveting Nautical Blue Metallic, Blackberry Crush Metallic, and Hypnotic Teal Metallic. My tester was silver, but I’ve always been partial to the Blackberry Crush.

The standard car is packed with good features, and there is a huge selection of add-ons that join the car at the port of entry if you order them. Standards out of the box (so to speak) are power steering, windows, locks, and mirrors. Then, you get air conditioning, remote keyless entry, and a whole passel of airbags. For active safety, the xB comes with four-wheel antilock brakes with Electronic Brake Distribution and Brake Assist, two electronic aids that make the brakes work more evenly and powerfully—automatically. You even get a first-aid kit!

You can buy custom goodies from Scion directly and there is a huge industry for other add-ons, including body kits, sound systems, electronic goodies, and more. It’s all about customizing and making the xB your own. That’s also how a car with a base price of a mere $16,600 goes out the door for $22,765!

My tester featured a navigation system, on a cool screen that flipped out and onto its back to allow feeding of a CD into the drive. My tester also replaced the 16-inch steel wheels and wheel covers with some smarter-looking alloys. The backs of the front seats wore video screens for showing DVDs to the fortunate back seat passengers. And I got to use the four-color interior light kit to show off the cupholders and footwells (I liked green best). I admired the illuminated door sills with the Scion logotype.

You might think from what I’ve said so far that I’m not very keen on the xB. That is not true. I love the utility in its still small package, the attitude of cruising around in a block, and the comfortable interior that was ideal for commuting. I do miss the cuteness of the last xB, but this one really moves, and I enjoyed flaunting the demographic by being seen in it as a guy with a gray beard. The fact is, the previous xB was a hit with smart old folks because of its practicality, ease of entry and exit, and low price.

The sunvisor doesn’t shade more than the front half of the side window, but I couldn’t find anything else to complain about. The Scion folks say their owners wanted a bigger box, and in this case, the people have spoken.

My Life with the Castro Valley Adult School Chamber Orchestra

The audience sits quietly in anticipation. Then, with the rise and fall of the maestro’s baton, the beautiful sounds of Haydn’s 104th Symphony fill the Castro Valley Center for the Arts.

It’s Sunday, March 18, 2007. I’m the guy standing in the back playing the bass in my first appearance with the Castro Valley Adult School Chamber Orchestra. My family is in the third row listening. It’s a wonderful day.

Flash back to January 2, 2007. I’m nervous as I arrive at the first rehearsal. I’ve never been in an orchestra before, and I’ve only been playing the bass for a couple of years.

The musicians welcome me into the room. Everyone seems nice, so I relax a little. Most of the people are middle aged (like me) or older. Everybody is full of energy and smiles are everywhere. These folks have obviously played together before.

Our conductor arrives, a round, jolly man with short, white hair and a big smile. Josh Cohen is the driving force behind this group, and his hours of planning, preparation, and organization keep this community orchestra alive. I shake hands and say hi.

After some tuning, we start working on the Haydn. Unfortunately, I am not good at sight reading yet so I play only a few notes here and there. I’m feeling more and more nervous, afraid that my omissions will be obvious. Will they tell me to go home? I decide to simply do my best, grit my teeth, and try to stay calm.

When we stop, Josh asks me if everything is OK. I explain that I’m not familiar with the piece yet, and then he says, “OK, just play the notes you can, and next time, play more.” With that welcome reassurance, I go back to my task with a much lighter heart and a strong determination to practice rigorously.

Next, we move on to Bizet’s Carmen Suite. Thanks to an advance look at the music, I dive into Carmen with more competence. I can see that Josh notices that I’m hitting more notes.

Before I know it, the rehearsal is over and people are packing up their instruments. I was worried that my imperfect playing would bother the musicians, but they are thrilled to have a bassist. I’m glad I stayed and happy I signed up for this adventure.

From that day on, I practice my music at home diligently. When I arrive at the next rehearsal, it goes much more smoothly. After the rehearsal, Josh comes up to me and says, “You played a lot more this time. Great job!”

And that’s the way it’s been ever since. We rehearse as a group for two hours every Tuesday night and I practice on my own almost every day at home. I have dozens of new friends and the exciting and enriching experience of making music. And with the Castro Valley Adult School, it costs so little to be part of it.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Welcome to my blog

It's so easy to start a blog, you'd think I'd have done it long ago. You can expect to find my opinions and observations on automobiles, music (especially the bass), and whatever else in life inspires me.

I am a writer by profession, producing in-house communications material for software giant Oracle. I have written a weekly automotive test column since February 1992 (see www.sanleandrotimes.com).

I am an electric and acoustic bassist, and am always learning new things about music.

Stay tuned.