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

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

Stay tuned.