Saturday, May 3, 2008

(red paint) Rocks the Bay Area Music Scene

Four musicians--two songwriters--two guitars, a bass and a set of drums. Sound a lot like the Beatles? Well, (red paint) is not the fab four, but they're having a great time entertaining folks at restaurants, parties, and wherever they're welcome.

Colin, Shaun, Steve, and Tony have been working together for about a year and a half and have dozens of polished songs, from the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Beatles, and a bunch of originals from Colin (and a couple from Steve). Not a cover band, but comfortable working with others' material when it's right, (red paint) is eager to play for you. Go see and hear them at

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Toyota Highlander Hybrid -- Saving the Earth, a Little

Toyota’s Prius may be the archetypical hybrid, but there are actually three Toyota hybrids. You can get the Hybrid Synergy Drive system in the Camry sedan and the Highlander crossover/SUV too.

The all-new 2008 Highlander has grown, the better to accommodate a third row seat, which apparently the marketplace demanded. The new Highlander Hybrid stretches four inches longer on a three-inch-longer wheelbase and weighs a hefty 4,600 pounds.

The new Highlander has toned down most of the original model’s angular offroad look to a tailored essence of ruggedness. The shape hints at adventure but borrows generously from the current Toyota design book. Crafted at Toyota’s Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, the design features deeply worked side panels, more asymmetrical and three-dimensional shapes at both ends and an aggressively tapered nose.

Inside, the expanded accommodations feel a lot like Toyota’s upscale Lexus models, with their bold two-toning. However, the attractive woodgraining turns out to be fake, and the shiny console and chrome cupholder surrounds glare when the sun hits them. Of course the seats, in this case covered in leather, are very comfortable and supportive.

All Highlanders come well equipped, but my tester, a Limited, had a lot more stuff. On the outside, it flaunted fog lamps, puddle lamps, 19-inch alloy wheels, silver painted roof rails, and a rear glass hatch. Inside were heated leather seats, an upgraded audio system with six-disc changer and satellite radio capacity, illuminated vanity mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Homelink universal transmitter, and rear cargo cover. The Limited has more available options, too.

The extensive list of safety features is shared by both Hybrid models. The Star Safety System includes a wide range of electronic helpers. Vehicle Stability Control automatically adjusts engine output and braking force at each wheel and varies steering assistance as needed. Antilock brakes prevent wheel lockup in emergency stops. Electronic Brake-force Distribution distributes braking between the front to rear wheels depending on driving conditions and how heavily the Highlander is loaded.

As icing on this electronic cake, the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system monitors the whole thing, anticipating tire slippage and working with the electronic throttle and brakes. Yes, it’s complicated, but it should mitigate any concerns about driving a tall, heavy vehicle in any weather.

While the standard Highlander uses a new 3.5-liter V6, the Hybrid’s system employs a 3.3-liter V6 mated to a high-torque electric drive motor-generator. Toyota’s engineers made many upgrades and refinements to this year’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, so it cranks out the same horsepower—270—as the regular car but uses electricity to make at least part of it.

So how good is the fuel economy and carbon impact on the environment? I compared my Cypress Pearl test vehicle to the standard 2008 Highlander I tested six months ago. The EPA mileage figures are 17 City, 23 Highway for the standard car and 27 City, 25 Highway for the hybrid. While hardly being Prius numbers, that’s a pretty good improvement. My actual mileage averages were 16.1 mpg for a week in the standard car and 23.5 mpg in the hybrid. That’s a 44 percent gain.

In the matter of environmental impact, the standard car earns a 7 out of 10 for Air Pollution and 5 out of 10 for Greenhouse Gases. Compare that to the hybrid’s scores of 9 and 8. That’s quite impressive.

Driving a hybrid vehicle is not much different from driving a normal one, but you can save fuel by paying attention. The Highlander Hybrid offers some useful features for taking control. The EV Mode switch lets you drive in pure electric mode for a limited distance and at low speeds. The car tends to do this automatically, but this could be a gas saver, and it’s whisper quiet. The ECON drive mode smoothes out throttle response—another fuel saver. The Hybrid System Indicator further guides you by offering Normal and Acceleration modes. By keeping the power meter needle on the dash within a certain range, you can achieve maximum fuel economy. Just be sure to watch the road, too.

Prices for Highlander Hybrids are $33,700 for the base car and $39,950 for the Limited, plus a $685 delivery fee (this could go up along with fuel prices). My tester had about $7,000 worth of options, totaling out at $46,899. The base nonhybrid Highlander starts at $27,300.

The $6,400 difference between base models shows that you will need to drive a lot before making up the cost difference with lower fuel consumption, but you can start emitting less carbon dioxide and fewer pollutants from the day you drive your Highlander Hybrid off the lot.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gilead: Saving Lives and Making a Difference

On March 17th, 2008 I started an exciting new job as the manager of employee communications at Gilead Sciences, Inc. The 3,000-person company is headquartered in Foster City, California, but has facilities in Canada, Europe and Australia as well.

Gilead, founded in 1987, is a research-based biopharmaceutical company that discovers, develops and commercializes innovative medicines in areas of unmet need. Gilead's mission is to improve the care of patients suffering from life-threatening diseases.

Gilead’s primary areas of focus include: antivirals (such as HIV/AIDS and chronic hepatitis), cardiovascular conditions (such as pulmonary arterial hypertension and resistant hypertension) and respiratory diseases (such as influenza and cystic fibrosis).

Gilead has 11 products on the market. Atripla® is the first single tablet regimen for treatment of HIV. Gilead scientists invented the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu® (oseltamivir). The company's latest therapy, Letairis™ (ambrisentan), is a once-daily oral treatment for pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a progressive, life-threatening disease.

It feels great to be part of a company that is making a real difference in the world.

Land Rover LR2--Sweet Spot Between Car and SUV

On one hand, Land Rovers are legendary off-road performers. On the other, they are luxurious cruisers for the well-to-do. As the newest and smallest Land Rover, the LR2 attempts to blend the best qualities of a fine sedan with the rugged off-road ability of an SUV.

I parked my Rimini Red LR2 tester next to a Range Rover. It was obvious how compact my LR2 was. I also noted the LR2’s much more laid-back windshield, softer body contours, and more stylish headlamp and taillight treatments. Land Rover designers are combining traditional brand design cues with a modern sensibility to attract new, younger buyers.

The LR2 definitely preserves the Land Rover high “command driving” position, but it’s not a difficult climb into the comfortable interior. As they did with the exterior, Land Rover designers have worked to create a carlike ambiance that still draws upon the brand’s legendary blocky, high-efficiency interior elements.

Interior surfaces boast a high luster and fit together beautifully. Tall glass evokes an SUV more than a car, and the standard double sunroof lets in abundant light. Taking advantage of the tall roof, Land Rover’s planners ordered up stadium seating, so rear passengers sit a little higher than those in front and enjoy an open, panoramic view.

The metallic horn bars on the steering wheel are likely a Land Rover tradition. The gauges are readable and attractive, but are one of the areas where the difference between the high-priced Range Rover and the more affordable LR2 are obvious. Using “wood-effect finishes” rather than real wood trim is another cost-related decision. It certainly looked nice enough, though.

The LR2 features a new, Volvo-developed inline six-cylinder engine under its clamshell bonnet (hood). It is carefully engineered to be short enough to mount transversely (side to side). This creates greater space in the cabin and aids efficient layout of the safety systems.

The new engine generates 230 horsepower and 234 lb.-ft. of torque. Eighty percent of maximum torque is available across the entire rev range, so you won’t find yourself wishing for more grunt when you need it. The 4,255-pound car accelerates from 0-60 miles per hour in 8.4 seconds.
The LR2 uses a new six-speed automatic that was specially developed for the brand. The electronic system offers settings for Auto, Sport, or CommandShift manual shift modes. Sport mode holds low gears longer and shifts down more readily.

Land Rover claims combined fuel economy of 25.2 miles per gallon, and the EPA rates it at 16 City, 23 Highway. I averaged 14.3 miles per gallon on premium fuel. The EPA score for Air Pollution (7) is good; the Greenhouse Gases score of 5 is average.

Land Rover’s intelligent permanent all-wheel-drive system sends nearly all of the torque to the front wheels until you run into a change in hazardous road conditions, at which time it instantly sends some or most of the torque to the rear wheels as required. A Haldex electronically controlled center coupling is employed for instant and effective transmission of torque—more sophisticated than that found in most other garden variety SUVs and crossovers.

Terrain Response connects the engine, gearbox, center coupling and chassis systems to respond to the varying driving conditions. Choose one of four settings using a rotary dial on the center console for General Driving, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud and Ruts, or Sand. In my urban, on-road driving, I stayed in the first setting.

Terrain Response works with other electronic systems for enhanced safety and off-road control. For example, Dynamic Stability Control normally removes torque to wheels that lose traction, but the Terrain Response system can leave a little torque there if the system senses that it’s needed. Terrain Response also fine tunes the traction control and anti-lock braking systems.
Hill Descent Control (HDC) automatically restricts downhill speeds, whether the ground is slippery or not. Gradient Release Control works in tandem with HDC to ensures that the brakes are released safely on extremely steep hills, where everything you do matters.

This new Land Rover is priced to compete with other entry-level luxury SUVs and crossovers such as the BMW X3 and Lexus RX. My tester carried a base price of $36,150, including shipping. It also featured a few options, such as the $1,050 Lighting Package and $3,500 Technology Package. These packages added niceties such as Bi-Xenon headlamps, memory driver seat and mirror settings, a navigation system, and other upscale features. The total tab was $41,400.

The LR2 offers a very enjoyable day-to-day driving experience, and has the brains and muscle to take you safely through poor road conditions or off road entirely if necessary. It is distinctive without being too flashy—maybe just like you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jaguar XK--Performance, Beauty, and Comfort

Jaguar has not had the smoothest road in recent years. As part of Ford, the division has eradicated the reliability issues that plagued the company’s products in past years. But other facets of being part of the blue oval have been less rosy. The S-Type, while pretty and traditional looking, did not sell in the volume that was planned, and the X-Type—well, that car, based on Ford’s compact Mondeo, never really gained traction in the U.S. Profitability has been elusive.

The new XK, introduced in 2007, shows a new, better way. It replaced a ten-year-old model which itself restored some of the smooth style associated with the historic British marque.

Available in coupe or convertible form, it is a worthy successor to the iconic XK-E, or E-Type, Jaguar. Just look at that oval grille on the softly rounded front. There’s even the hood bulge of the E-Type, connoting sensuousness and power.

The rest of the car, including contemporary lighting and bumpers, reads 21st century, which is a good thing. “Power vents” behind the front wheels are part of the new design scheme of chief designer Ian Callum. Handsome 18-inch “Venus” design wheels support the package.

The XK’s interior is refreshingly plush and carefully wrought. The leather seats hold you tight but comfortably. My Emerald Fire test vehicle featured a tasty Caramel interior with genuine Burl Walnut trim. This wood is carefully prepared by Jaguar’s craftspeople in the traditional way. The new model is significantly roomier than its predecessor, so driver and passenger can stretch out a bit more.

I especially enjoyed using the intuitive seven-inch central touch screen with its large, colorful control areas. I was surprised to see the seat heater controls on the panel. They had no physical dash buttons—a first in my experience.

The XK offers thrilling performance with its naturally-aspirated 4.2-liter V8. The 300-horsepower all-aluminum engine pushes the 3,700-pound XK from zero to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds. Jaguar’s engineers have carefully tuned the exhaust system to give the XK the “right” sound—sporty but not too noisy.

The V8, with 303 lb.-ft. of torque usable in a wide RPM range, sends power to the rear wheels through a six-speed ZF automatic transmission. You can shift manually using Jaguar Sequential Shift through steering wheel paddles, a first for the XK. Drive-by-wire electronic throttle control adds to the driver’s tactile sense of mastery of the car.

The EPA gives the XK ratings of 16 City, 25 Highway. Of course, the real world numbers are lower—I averaged 14.9 mpg. The environmental scores aren’t bad. The XK gets a praiseworthy 7 for the Air Pollution score and an average 5 for the Greenhouse Gases score.

Despite its two-person, cozy personality, the XK offers significant cargo hauling capacity. Credit its secret hatchback configuration. The entire “trunklid” and window area lifts up and exposes a finely carpeted space with metal and rubber strips ready for your stuff. You lift the hatch the first 20 percent of the way and gas struts do the rest, making it nearly effortless.

Naturally, a car like this comes with every luxury and comfort you’d want. Beyond the usual power windows, mirrors, seats, and so on, a satellite navigation system is standard. There’s a no-touch smart key and start system, reverse park control (it beeps out a warning), and a tiny electric emergency brake you flick with your finger.

If you want more, Jaguar proudly offers the turbocharged XKR, with 420 horsepower. Turbo boost cuts the zero-to 60 time to just 4.9 seconds. A new Portfolio Coupe model debuts for 2008 with even more goodies, such as 20-inch Cremona wheels, high-performance brakes, a 525-watt audio system, and leather-edged floor mats. At nearly $100,000, the Portfolio Coupe is one very special Jaguar indeed.

For the XK Coupe like my tester, the sticker price is $75,550, including shipping. Plan to pay a $6,000 premium for the cloth drop-top model. My tester came with the $3,300 Luxury Package, which includes 16-way power seats with memory (instead of the standard 10-way), upgraded soft leather (nice), a heated steering wheel (don’t laugh), leather shift knob (isn’t this standard?), power folding mirrors (they fold automatically when you turn off the car), and an upgrade to stunning 19-inch wheels.

If you have the cash, the new Jaguar XK gives you a rare combination of luxury and performance in a stand-out package.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mazda RX-8 - For Sporting Nonconformists

Lots of people buy four-door sedans. They want practicality, reliability, and value. They are not RX-8 customers.

The RX-8 is a sports car. But, amazingly, it is not an irresponsible, gas guzzling, heavily polluting two-seater. On the contrary, the RX-8 offers a unique way of enjoying driving, bringing some friends along, and not breaking the bank at the fuel pump or at purchase time.

The RX-8 is the only mass market car that comes with a rotary engine. This tiny, 1.3-liter displacement powerplant generates 232 horsepower, with 159 lb.-ft. or torque, enough to drive the 3,053-pound vehicle down the road at a thrilling clip.

Using a triangular rotor instead of pistons, the RENESIS rotary engine is smooth and quiet, and surprisingly tiny compared to a normal six-cylinder or even four-cylinder engine. It sports an incredible 9,000-rpm redline—you can rev the rotary up till it howls to get maximum power out of it. With the low-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive, the RX-8 boasts a perfect 50/50 balance front to rear.

The EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide gives the RX-8 scores of 6 on the Air Pollution score and 5 on the Greenhouse Gas score. That’s about average for all cars, but the RX-8 is much more fun to drive.

My test car, in bright Velocity Red, came with the standard six-speed manual transmission, but you can order up a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters as well. I’d rather shift my own gears with a sports car, thank you very much, but that’s me. The engine horsepower drops to 212 with the automatic transmission.

With four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with anti-lock, stopping power arrives quickly and smoothly. The car also has a limited slip differential to transfer power effectively. All RX-8s have a tire pressure monitor to help you keep the inflation at its optimum level for performance and safety.

With its set of rear-hinged “suicide” doors in back, you can open up a wide space for rear passengers to enter and exit. I fit my son’s teenage friends in back with no problem. Even though there’s no center pillar, the doors lock in using pins so the structure is rugged and safe for impact protection.

Mazda loves to flaunt its triangular rotary design, so you will see it as a “goatee” under the front grille, at the top of the shift knob, in the headrests, on center console, and on the emergency brake. Two design elements are surprising inside the RX-8. The circle theme on the center console looks like a CD. However, CDs actually slip into a slot, just as in any other car. The brake handle features an additional lower section that seems unnecessary.

The RX-8’s firm suspension makes the car handle like a real road athlete, but every surface variation is broadcast throughout the car. A sports-minded driver won’t care—just pump up the stereo—but for day-to-day cruising it’s not ideal.

One handy feature is the car’s flat card-shaped key. It never has to leave your pocket when approaching, opening, or starting the car. Pull it out to lock the doors when you park and that’s it.

Like the beloved Mazda Miata (now known as the MX-5), the RX-8 is fun to toss around and feels like an extension of your body. The electric power steering adds assistance when you need it and drops it off when you don’t. It’s easy to get used to pointing and shooting through traffic.

The RX-8 comes in three trim levels for 2008. The Sport is the first level, with a generous list of standard equipment, including a six-speaker 100-watt audio system, 18-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, and power windows, locks, and mirrors. The Touring model adds Xenon high-intensity-discharge headlamps with fog lights, an upgrade to a nine-speaker 300-watt audio system, a power sunroof, an automatically dimming rearview mirror, and dynamic stability control with traction control.

The Grand Touring model, like my test car, further sweetens the pot with heated, leather-trimmed seats. The driver’s seat has eight-way power adjustment. The Grand Touring also receives the aforementioned automatic keyless entry and start system.

Pricing runs from $27,705 for the Sport to $31,705 for the Grand Touring model—those numbers include destination charges. For this level of entertainment, uniqueness, and content, that’s easy to take.

If you want to be extraordinarily entertained, your car is waiting for you now!