Friday, March 30, 2012

Mercedes-Benz C350 - Enough "Mercedesness"

One of the issues that the German luxury car companies deal with in America is maintaining their exclusivity while still increasing sales. The guy who buys a 7 Series BMW or a Mercedes-Benz S Class doesn't really want to share the brand with some dude with a four-cylinder hatchback that's wearing the same distinctive emblem on its nose. So, the companies have been reticent to send over their more modest offerings.

That's why the C Class is the smallest Mercedes we've had on these shores, and still is--for now. The C-Class has been a four-door sedan in the U.S. for many years, since the cute little hatchback three-door was marketed here. You still see the hatches on the road.

Now, there's a new C-Class coupe, and it is one handsome piece of work. It wears the latest face of the brand and has a dramatic shape that is not so much "cute" as it is slick and compact -- but not tiny. You take it seriously, and it elicited some nice compliments from passers-by. One guy in front of the Starbucks said to me, "Cool ride, dude!" I told  him I was "just playing with it" and he found that very amusing. Yeah, right.

I spent a too-short week with a Mars Red example and it possessed that quality that keeps buyers coming back for more. Mercedes seems to have figured out that its cars have to have a solid and well wrought quality inside and out to not seem like Hondas, and they do.

The body design is unmistakably Mercedes, with its three-pointed star up front. The interior, though, where drivers spend their time, is especially striking. The surfaces are padded--but not too softly. The seats are firm and gripping. The burl walnut trim is from a real tree--as it should be in a car like this.

The entertainment system gave a fine sound, but I was unable to figure out how to pair my phone with Bluetooth without consulting the instructions. It's easier in a Kia--and still works fine.

My tester was a C350, meaning it had a 3.5-liter V6 putting out 302 horsepower under the shapely hood. It all ran through a seven-speed (!) automatic, which mean no effort to shift it, but no manual--like you can get at the BMW and Audi dealers (in some models). It makes it easy to not miss the self-shifting experience, and its Touch Shift program lets you select gears with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, even if you don't have a clutch to play with.

I got 21 miles per gallon over my week. The EPA says 19 City, 28 Highway, 22 Average, so I was right in there. Not a super economy car, but not a gas guzzler either. The EPA says 6 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas--mid pack.

You can opt for the 201-horsepower turbo 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine in the C250 and have much of the goodness of the C350, but for a whole lot less cash. My tester came to $50,835 when all was said and done and all the packages were added ($42,370 suggested retail). The C250 starts at $37,995 with shipping, which is what cars like this cost these days.

The C-Class Coupe is a subcompact, so it has back seats but is not spacious. It's cozy--and makes you feel good--but it'll cost you. Many people think it's worth it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My First Car Story - Courtesy of Subaru

Subaru has been doing everything right lately. They are now Consumer Reports magazine's top rated manufacturer for quality--a first for the brand. They've weathered the last few years while others have struggled. They've got lots of shiny new products, including the brand new BRZ sports coupe (shared with Toyota).

They also put out two terrific magazines called Drive and Drive Performance. I assume they go to all new buyers and interested owners--and lucky journalists like me.

In the just-arrived Drive Performance issue is a feature called You type in the story of your first car and they animate it for you. It is amazing and fun--and you come up with a video that looks like this. I talked about my first car--a 1964 Beetle (see photo for a similar, and better-condition, vehicle). You should try it too.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Where You Fit in the Universe

Philosophical and religious concerns notwithstanding, there is always the straightforward aspect of size. How big are you, compared to, say a Planck (incredibly small) or the entire universe (unimaginably large). Now, there's a quick way to find out--online, of course.

Go here and you can start with the familiar: dodo birds and beachballs, and work your way to planets at the large end and to quarks and their ilk on the other. Click on any object to learn more about it. It's all about The Scale of the Universe.

Have fun.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Nissan Versa Revised

I just gave back my Metallic Blue Nissan Versa sedan and, you know, it's better than you might think for under $16,000 (including shipping). And--it's surprisingly big inside, with shockingly accommodating legroom.

Just because it's cheap doesn't mean it's teeny. Actually, if you want to pay more, you can buy a new Fiat 500 or a MINI Cooper and get more gadgets (and driving amusement) but you'll run short when you try to stuff your friends and their gear inside.

The Versa sits at the bottom of the Nissan food chain--in America. Europeans and Asians get cars like the Micra, which I covet. It's THEIR MINI.

In any case, I put lots of miles in the Versa driving to see my son and daughter-in-law--and my sweet little 3-year-old granddaughter. The thing is, without fanfare, it just goes. With just 1.6 liters of engine and 109 horsepower, it is no powerhouse but other than on some sustained grades, where the revs climbed to build the necessary torque, it was a quiet and even pleasant ride. And, I got a genuine 35.0 miles per gallon, which is actually higher than the EPA average of 33. Must be all that freeway driving (30 City, 38 Highway per the EPA).

The door panels are solid, hard plastic, styled to look like something more elaborate. The seat cushions are short and cloth-covered. There's no mirror on the driver's sunvisor. And most odd--the windshield wipers are both hinged in front of the driver--so you see both of them going across the glass when it's rainy. My only explanation is that the Japanese market car on which it's based is set up for right-hand drive, and those lucky folks see NO wiper blades.

The Versa sedan gets an all-new look this year, while the hatchback keeps the old. It's a pleasant, but not especially distinctive, with a rising window line in back leading to a triangular point and oddly fanciful taillights that sit below one of the most recent evocations of the 2004 BMW 7 Series butt. The inside is rounded and not much like the chunky, old-fashioned (somewhat French-looking) older car.

There are three levels. The S is the base car and starts at a mere $11,770 (including shipping).

The mid-range SV adds cruise control, chrome grille accents, body-color dual power remote-controlled rearview mirrors, upgraded cloth seats, power windows and more. My test car was an SV with the Convenience Package, with Bluetooth phone connection (easy to set up), steering wheel mounted audio controls and an iPod interface.

The top-level SL models add 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, variable intermittent wipers, chromed inside door handles, 60/40-split fold-down rear seat, the Convenience Package stuff standard, an upgraded audio system, and more stuff.

If you want a manual transmission, you'll have to go with the base car. Few are expected to.

Nothing fancy, but nothing to complain about either, really--you sure get your money's worth.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jazz Summit III - The Power of Amateur Musicianship

I got to hear an afternoon of Jazz last Sunday that was way about what I had expected. I got an invitation to come to the Netivot Shalom synagogue to hear the Albany Jazz Big Band, with whom my ex-wife, an excellent singer, performs. What I got was the exciting and very rhythmic Netivot Shalom Jazz/Klez Band, let by Rabbi Stuart Kelman on clarinet, the quite impressive 25-piece Albany Jazz Band, and then, when I thought the show was already very fine for a mere $5 donation, out came the 17-piece Jazzschool Adult Big Band.

As far as I know, none of these talented musicians is a professional, but you'd never know it by the show. The Jazzschool, an institution of scholarship and musical training, had their reputation further polished by the set these folks delivered. Great solos, a nicely blended and powerful ensemble sound, and some animated and spot on conducting by saxophonist Dave LeFebvre. As a bassist, I was especially taken with Jon Randall's switch-hitting, moving smoothly from upright to five-string electric bass.

The Albany Jazz Big Band reminded me of my own Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra. Folks assemble to improve their skills and have a great time. I spoke with Wendy, who had taken up the saxophone in her 50's after seeing her son do the same. She performed a fine solo near the end of the set that showed that her work and dedication were paying off.

The singers with the band put their well-rehearsed pipes to work over the big sound and if you half closed your eyes, you might think you were in a club 50 years ago, hearing the original real deal. Conductor Bob Levenson was fun to watch, his long hair flying, his baton constantly in motion. My ex's two songs, of course, were sensational.

The synagogue's groups I knew less well, but they made a perfect warm-up. They truly mixed the Jewish klezmer sound with the big band Jazz feel for a very satisfying show. An affiliated choral group also appeared and sang some old Yiddish songs--which seemed appropriate in the sanctuary of the synagogue.

A note on that fine building. Located along a major thoroughfare in college city Berkeley, California, the modern and recent Netivot Shalom synagogue has lots of glass and feels wide open. This says something about how synagogues are perceived and respected today in America. Recognition of this happy situation stands in sad contrast to the shootings that occurred right in front of the Jewish school in Toulouse, France at almost the same time.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Getting a Charge out of the Chevy Volt

The Chevrolet Volt is unique in the world of hybrid and electric vehicles. It is powered by an electric motor all the time, unlike a hybrid, in which the gasoline engine powers the car part of the time. However, an on-board gas engine is called in to service the charge the battery when the car runs out of electricity, which, in my case, was when the 32 miles worth of power was exhausted. The engine itself never powers the wheels directly.

This gas engine is meant to remove "range anxiety," a malady suffered by owners of all-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf can go up to 90 miles on a charge, but when you're out, you're stranded.

The Volt is a compact sedan--not a large one--and will hold four people--not five. The rear seat has a console along the middle to prevent that. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing today that it limits the weight the car must bear, thereby increasing the range of the electric powertrain.

Chevy showed a concept car of the Volt several years ago and it was much more angular than today's car. However, it was "futuristic" and the production car is, too. Styling is a little bit advanced and different from end to end. Especially notable is the silvery "grille," through which no air can pass (it comes in under the bumper for the engine--a common setup today). The dark strips below the side windows are an iteration of a design concept from the original show car and make the smallish windows look--but not feel--larger.

The interior is where the Volt goes wild. Despite being finished in hard plastics throughout, it is very evocative of modernity and even a little adventurous. The twin cockpit theme--from as far back as the original Corvette, is in evidence, and the shiny plastic door inserts convey the old painted feeling of those cars. But of course this car is built like a fortress and has umpteen airbags to protect you.

The instrument panel has two rectangular screens-one directly behind the steering wheel and one in the center spot on the dash Both convey, in brightly colored graphics, what's happening with the car, and you can make numerous selections to monitor such functions as where the power is coming from, how the battery is being charged, and recent fuel economy. It tells you after every charge how well you did--and what proportion of your mileage was powered by electrons and how much was thanks to hydrocarbons.

I was thrilled to be able to drive my Crystal Red test car the entire 23 miles to work each day on pure electricity. The car feels strong, pulls eagerly away from stops, and sails down the road in blissful silence. My car's stereo was happy to put out the music, although one time, I sat and let it play for about 20 minutes and I could see that it was draining my battery!

Everything you do affects range, and you learn to behave carefully to maximize that. You can monitor your habits to see how efficient you are. And, there's a little gadget you can select for the panel directly in front that shows you visually, using a rising or falling sphere, whether you're rolling along fine or are accelerating or braking too much. The goal, for economy, is to keep the ball in the middle, and it stays there if you are just rolling along. Hard acceleration or braking make the ball stop move off-center. It's a learning tool, much like the ones in Hybrids, but this is especially three-dimensional--as are all the displays in the Volt.

Charging is easy. You just uncoil the thick orange cord and plug it in the wall. Then, pop open the nicely-finished mini door on the left front fender and plug in the flashlight-sized plug. It has a handle and a built-in light to locate the outlet easily. The lights on the charger glow green, the car chirps its horn once, and a small green light goes on on the dash near the windshield. You can check how it's doing by opening the car and looking at the dash display.

I was happy to see, each morning, that I had a full battery. It's displayed like a row of gold bars in the T shape of the actual battery, which is hidden below the central tunnel and back seat. I enjoyed the quality of the car--despite its non-luxurious interior materials, it felt sold, looked fine, and worked perfectly. The seats, with optional leather in my tester, held me comfortably.

Two regrets. One--I wish the car had a longer range, because it feels great to drive under electric power. Two--the price. My car had a $40,000 base price, plus $4,000 worth of options. At $44,000, I could be looking at a Mercedes-Benz. But--only Chevy makes the Volt. I assume that future versions will increase the electric battery range and, with volume sales, the prices should come down. There is a $7,500 tax credit to help ease the pain, as well.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Subaru - Selling Love that Lasts

Cars are consumer products, but unlike refrigerators, they can carry so much more meaning to us. And who hasn't watched an odometer roll over an important milestone and thought about other milestones--some much more significant.

Commercials are consumer motivators--and for durable goods like cars, made of metal and plastic and many mysterious parts in hidden places, the best way to move the metal is to move the emotions of the customer.

Subaru's new ad does this, in showing an odometer  turning over to 200,000--a rather momentous milestone in the life of a car--and then giving us some meaningful glimpses into the life of the (original) owner--in reverse order. Presumably now, we see his son riding in back, who's maybe five. At around 98,000 miles, his wife and new baby ride in back--on the way home from the hospital, perhaps? Further back, we see that special first date, that contains the first kiss. At around 25,000 miles, we find out how met his wife. Further back to a mere 15 miles on the clock, the young owner, with curly hair and short beard, looks lovingly upon his brand new car before climbing in and driving off into the happy future that we know he'll have--but he doesn't.

The message? Love--of car, of family, of life--and also durability, a safe place for your loved ones, the pleasure of long term relationships. Trust your future to our car. It's very sweet and never heavy handed.

Selling cars is all about building relationships. Think of what Toyota lost with it's safety issues not long ago. Consider the love people have for their youthful Honda Civics, and how it provides a rich customer base for today's Honda Pilots and Accords. Chevrolet recently aired an ad showing a pair of seniors going on a date--and reliving their youth as they drive along in their Chevy (a new one, of course).

Subaru has been doing very well lately, with the top manufacturer quality rating from Consumer Reports for 2012 as well as having sold lots of cars over the last few years during a down market. Surely even more folks will consider the brand after being moved by this new ad.

Toyota Camry - All New Again

Toyota's Camry is, along with the Honda Accord, the poster child for midsize family sedan in America. Hundreds of thousands pass through dealers to happy customers every year. Yet, change must come, and another generation of the Camry has arrived once again for 2012.

As the home of the Prius, Toyota has for years now offered a Hybrid version of the Camry, and I had the good fortune to drive one recently. The news is good. Although, for various reasons, the Camry can't touch the Prius for fuel economy, it nevertheless earned an impressive 35.6 miles per gallon during its week with me. I didn't drive it especially gently or carefully either. Seventy on the interstate, zipping through in-town traffic, and that's what I got.

Spending time in a Camry, while never a thrill, has always been pleasant, and the new car notches that up a bit. The trim feels a bit more upscale, and the seats feel more European-style firm. The dash has stitching along its edges--but when it meets the doors, they disappear. At the bottom of the dash center console, two plastic stitch "replicas" visually continue the look. That's what makes a Camry less than a Lexus; inside the latter, the stitching would be real throughout.

I liked the bright blue rings on the gauges--I'm not sure, but they may be part of the Hybrid package. Blue, it turns out, is the way manufacturers like to present "green." Think Mercedes Bluetec, for example.

The Hybrid gauges show where the energy is coming from and give a view into the battery's behavior. At the end of each trip you get graded, too. On my last trip, a commute to work, I earned 43.9 mpg and an "Excellent." Gee, thanks, Camry.

The easiest-to-buy Camry L starts at $22,715. My Hybrid XLE (the upper version) ran $34,617. But it had packages added, included the Leather package with ultrasuede seating (sweet).

Now in it's seventh generation, the Camry remains clean and conservative, but with a subtle, careful restyling and some surprisingly sharp-looking taillights, it keeps up a nearly 30-year tradition.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beads Galore!

My wife and I took off today to look at bead stores. She has plans to design some interesting jewelry.

The first place, Baubles and Beads, was huge--and we spent quite a while walking through and looking at the thousands and thousands of different beads you can buy. I wondered how they keep track of the items, which sat neatly in their tiny little trays with prices posted. They are almost all too small to hold price stickers!

Turns out they give you a pre-marked tray and you simply drop the items you want into the appropriate spots--$0.35? $5.00? Drop it in. They tally it up at the end--no cheating!

There is almost no limit to the kinds of things you can find in a bead store. Gorgeous colors, tiny objects, a wide range of materials and surfaces. If you have an idea, they should be able to supply something. One-quarter-inch-wide Buddha heads? Microscopic housekeys? Any animal you can think of? Replica watch faces? Beads made from beer bottlecaps?

They also have a whole corner of the store devoted to the small tools needed for manipulating the tiny wires, beads, metal pieces, etc. And how about classes? You can learn to do almost anything beadworthy.

We went to a second place, Bead Inspirations, but it was a fraction of the size. However, it still offered a charming inventory, and is closer to home, so any classes (weekends and holiday Mondays only) would be easier (and a little cheaper, too).

Afterwards, we bought my wife a sketchbook for her to record her jewelry ideas. I can't wait to see the results of all this research. But, the best part of all was spending the afternoon together.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Toyota Yaris- New Baby

With Scion designed to attract youth to the Toyota franchise, what role does the small Yaris have? Well, it does share some pieces of its platform with Scion's entry point--the XD -- but it is a popular car in Europe and is available, so why not sell it here in the U.S. as the baby Toyota? It follows in the footsteps of the Tercel and Echo as a chip off the old Camry.

The 2012 model is heavily revised. All-new styling is more aggressive and interesting, and it's all on top of a platform with a two-inch longer wheelbase and nearly three-inch-longer body. You can get it as a five-door or three-door hatchback -- no sedan.

The inside is much nicer looking and feels more upscale. There's even some padding on the dash--a place that looks like it got some real attention and wasn't just plopped in there on a budget. It feels closer in design to the new Camry--which is a compliment. And Toyota claims it put in more sound deadening material, so it is actually quiet in there.

The car is not a powerhouse--with just 106 horsepower and 103 lb.-ft. of torque from a liter and a half, but the car is not slug-like. I was fortunate to be given a Lagoon Blue Mica SE model with manual five speed--the sportiest version. You can also get the basic L or the volume LE model, which has more of the features folks want--like power windows. It's interesting to me that you can get the more fun five-speed manual (should be a six) with only the base L (for cost) or the SE (for sport) but the LE, which is surely the volume model, comes only with a four-speed automatic. Toyota knows the American market.

The price-leading L starts at just $14,875 (including shipping). My SE came to $17,340--with no extra options.

But who needs them? The SE has a leather wheel and shift knob, a decent sound system, Bluetooth connectivity for your phone (although the pairing method was a bit difficult to understand). It's also bristling with safety equipment (9 airbags) and has front and rear disc brakes, a body kit, 16-inch alloy wheels, and more.

You don't get everything in this level of car--no heated seats, the power window doesn't go up with one touch, and the center console looked and felt cheap. But it was actually fun to zip around in the car, and it delivered 33.1 miles per gallon--right what the EPA says it should (30 City, 38 Highway, 33 Average).

I had a chance to park my tester next to my friend Chris' last generation model. You can really see the difference.

With gas hitting $4.30 for regular, little cars are going to be big again, and the Yaris is a better way to go in 2012.