Friday, December 17, 2010

My Tattoo

On December 4, I went into Everlasting Tattoo in San Francisco to get my two basses permanently drawn on my left arm. The photo at the left shows my first tattoo after five days, when the initial swelling is gone.

Why would I do this?

Until quite recently, I believed that tattoos were favored only by sailors, who, on a drunken leave, staggered into a tiny tattoo parlor in some foreign port. Or, they were popular with motorcycle gang members, with Harley-Davidson marked in ink somewhere on their bodies. In more recent years, I’ve seen a lot of teenage girls getting “tramp stamps”—permanent decorations to fill the area between their waists and rear cleavage left open by dramatic, low slung pants designs. I certainly have never identified with or particularly been interested in any of those ink customers.

That all changed when my son, Cameron, got a beautiful tattoo done on his chest. We paid for it as an 18th birthday gift and high school graduation commemoration. I was so impressed by the work of Doug Hansen, the artist, that I commissioned him to do one for me.

I took in a sketch and Doug created a very quick drawing from it--already improving it tremendously (see left). He later sent me another, more finished drawing. I felt it needed its proportions changed, and he sent a third drawing. That was the one we used as a basis for my actual tattoo. In fact, Doug used a method of transferring the art directly to my arm to use as a pattern.

The drawing to the left shows the final artwork before going it was applied to my arm. I enjoyed looking at this image over and over while waiting impatiently for the day when it would become part of me.

The process of being tattooed is pretty simple. You lie down (or sit--depending on the part being worked on). The artist cleans and shaves the area. Then, he or she applies the design--or at least Doug did. The artist could work freehand. Then, he or she uses an electric needle tool to etch the design into your skin.

Yes, it hurts--but the pain is manageable, and with the release of endorphins, you begin to separate from it. My tattoo took about 2-1/2 hours to apply after the initial preparation.

Afterwards, you wear plastic wrap over it for a few hours, then begin applying A&D ointment for a few days, then switch to skin lotion. The important thing is to avoid picking at the tiny scabs that appear so you don't lose any of the image.

I love my tattoo, and am scheduled to go back next month to have more detail and some color applied to the instruments.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tesla Model S - An Electric Dream is Coming

Tesla Motors produces and sells the very expensive but breathtakingly fast all-electric Roadster. Founded in 2003 by a group of Silicon Valley engineers, the Palo Alto, California-based company has delivered more than 1,000 Roadsters since 2008.

Occasionally you may see one on the road (but you won’t hear it). With a sub four-second zero-to-sixty time and a price above $100,000, the exquisite two-seat Roadster will be enjoyed by a few lucky owners.

That’s why the Model S is so important. Designed to hold a family and with a projected price starting at $49,000 (after a $7,500 tax credit), this car will bring fully electric driving to anyone who is considering, say, a 5-series BMW or Mercedes E Class sedan. And with a range of up to 300 miles (with an optional extra large battery) and easy plug-in charging, living with a Model S doesn’t sound like much of an issue.

The Model S isn’t on sale yet, but a lot is already in place for its eventual success. Much of the technology involved in building a reliable all-electric car can be leveraged from the Roadster, so the Model S is not starting from scratch. And Tesla has brought together a world class team of experts with experience in other automotive companies. For example, prior to joining Tesla, Chief Designer Franz Von Holzhausen was Director of Design at the Mazda North American Design Center. Before that, he held the Design Director position at General Motors.

Peter Rawlinson, Vice President and Chief Engineer for Vehicle Engineering, was a consultant specializing in advanced engineering solutions for the global motor industry. In that capacity he worked on projects for Jaguar, Land Rover, Ford, Honda, BMW and Bentley. Before that, he served as Chief Engineer of Advanced Engineering at Lotus.

In May, Tesla purchased the former NUMMI plant in Fremont, California, site of the GM/Toyota joint venture. The former GM factory produced a variety of Toyota and GM vehicles for decades before becoming superfluous to Toyota after GM’s bankruptcy. Situated close to Tesla Motors’ headquarters, it is a much more convenient location than others that had been considered earlier.

The plant is capable of producing up to half a million vehicles a year—much more capacity than the 20,000 or so Model S cars that are slated for initial annual production. But as part of the company’s goal of bringing electric vehicles to more people, Tesla plans to expand, eventually producing an even more affordable electric vehicle than the Model S.

In addition, Tesla recently announced plans to cooperate with Toyota on the development of electric vehicles, parts, and production system and engineering support. The initial venture will place Tesla’s electric powertrains in the Toyota RAV4 compact SUV. Tesla will learn and benefit from Toyota’s engineering, manufacturing and production expertise, while Toyota in turn will benefit from Tesla’s EV technology and the quick decision-making and flexibility that they have as a small enterprise.

Sound good? Learn more about the Model S at Tesla’s website. You can submit your $5,000 refundable deposit now to place your order to be one of the first 1,000 owners. But you’ll have to wait. The Model S is scheduled to start production in 2012.

“The overarching purpose of Tesla, and my reason for personally funding the company, is to expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a sustainable, solar electric economy.”
- Elon Musk
Chairman, Product Architect and CEO

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Volkswagen Golf TDI - Reimagining Diesel

Diesels are back—and they’re fun, clean and inexpensive to run.

Europeans have appreciated the advantages of Diesel-powered cars for decades, and buy them in mass quantities. Now, in America, with ultra low sulfur clean Diesel fuel and the technologies to limit emissions, Diesel cars are even sold in emissions-conscious California. I recently spent a week in VW’s sixth-generation Golf and have plenty to say about it.

What’s missing? The “following-the-old-bus” exhaust smell, sluggish performance, clattering engine noise, and unpleasant fill-ups—gone. Driving one of these new Diesels is painless and shockingly economical.

Just check out the numbers. My Candy White test car featured the new 140-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder Diesel. The inline five-cylinder gas engine in regular Golfs boasts 170 horsepower, but just 177 lb.-ft. of torque. My Golf TDI churns out a huge 236 lb.-ft. of torque, at low rpm, too, so not only do you get more than decent acceleration from a stop but a little tap on the accelerator (don’t call it “the gas”) on the freeway and you’re shooting ahead.

Here are some more numbers. My tester’s EPA fuel mileage is 30 City, 42 Highway. I averaged 37.5 mpg in a week’s travel, a significant part of it highway. That’s only about five mpg lower than the last Prius hybrid I tested. Diesel fuel is priced between regular and mid-grade gas, and with the low sulfur Diesel, it has virtually no odor when you go to the little green pump to refuel.
The EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide awards the Golf a 7 for Air Pollution and an 8 for Greenhouse Gas, good for Smartway status. In a Diesel? Yes, indeed.

So, what’s new with this brand new car? Well, the body styling is a revised take on a now classic two-box hatchback theme, in two or four doors. If anything, the contours are a little more edgy, with the headlamps and taillamps more rectangular and the two-bar grille more horizontal. You’ll still recognize it as a Golf. By the way, the retro experiment of calling the car a Rabbit (complete with rabbit graphic) is over with the 2010 model.

As a hatchback, the Golf drops its rear seat and swallows your cargo like an SUV. I slid my upright bass in nicely, but any number of configurations would happily rest there as well—your new flat-screen TV for example, or a dorm room’s worth of junk. Despite its 165-inch length, this is one of the best combinations of fun, economy and usefulness you’re going to find on wheels.

The TDI, which stands for Turbo Direct Injection by the way, offers more than just a strong, environmentally sensitive powerplant. And the electro-mechanical, variably-assisted, power rack-and-pinion system, with a quick ratio, makes for a real sense of control.

For safety, the car’s Electronic Stability Program (ESP) uses its electronic brain to compare your driving intentions with the vehicle’s actual direction and steps in to alter the latter if it doesn’t match your input—automatically. The ESP system actually includes a batch of other traction and safety features, including Anti-Slip Regulation (ASR), Electronic Differential Lock (EDL), Hydraulic Brake Assist (HBA) and Electronic Brake-pressure Distribution (EBD). These happy acronyms are all watching out for you as you drive. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard.

Most of the time you spend with your car is not admiring it in your driveway—it’s inside. VWs in general and this new Golf in particular are well turned out for long term comfort, starting with supportive cloth seats. The dash, doors and trim are typical nicer-than-you-expect VW, and in this new car the shapes flow more than the earlier, more linear design concepts. Assembly, at VW’s historic Wolfsburg location in Germany, is superb. Leather on the steering wheel and shifter upgrades the skin/vehicle contact zones.

The TDI comes standard with a touch-screen eight-speaker sound system with AM/FM, Sirius Satellite Radio, and a six-disc CD changer. It also has an AUX jack and even better, an MDI (Mobile Data Interface) port for your iPod. I heard a little stumble at the start of each shuffled song, but performance was fine otherwise.

Pricing for the TDI begins at $22,740 for the two-door with six-speed manual, including destination charge. My tester, a four-door with DSG paddle-shift six-speed automatic , came to $26,614 with the optional Touchscreen Navigation System, Cold Weather package (includes heated seats and washer nozzles), and Bluetooth connection. Gasoline-powered 2-door manual-shift Golfs begin at $18,240.

Unless you plan to tow a boat or your family has six or more members, you can’t do much better than this car. It’s fun to drive, efficient, clean, practical and reasonably priced. You get three years of free maintenance and roadside assistance, too. It’s kind of a no-brainer, really.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop -- A Week of Heaven

The fingertips on my left hand tingle and looped strains of Schubert’s Trout Quintet play in my head. I’m back from my first stay at the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Since 1958, the workshop has brought together chamber musicians to play and live together at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. String players bring their violins, violas, cellos and double-basses. Wind players carry in their flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, and horns. We had a few exotic instruments too—English horns, piccolos, and even a remarkable C-shaped bass flute and huge contrabassoon. A saxophone even appeared for one performance.

Whatever instruments they carry in, everyone bring a desire to make music—lots of it—for a week together. Most people stay in the dorms on campus, making it a return to an intense college student life. The workshop is so popular now that it offers three different sessions: I was in week three.

The design of the workshop is brilliant. Every day, you are assigned a piece to work on with a different group. The music varies by composer, time period and style. It could be Mozart from the 18th century or written by Gwyneth Walker, who was born in 1947. It could sound gentle and pretty or exuberantly modern and tumultuous.

Groups are shuffled each day, so you work closely with a lot of different people over the week—and the groups vary in size, too. For a bass player like me, it normally means an assembly of five to nine players from both the string and wind groups—almost a small orchestra—but for a cellist, for example, it could mean working as a trio with a violin and a piano. But we had four flute players together once. Our largest group was a double quintet—five instruments with two players each.

You practice the assignment with your group in two morning sessions, where you meet and get direction from an expert coach. Besides being wonderful people, the coaches guide the group to produce its best sound together. I got some specific pointers on my technique that will help me in the future as well.

The two morning practice sessions are separated by a coffee break. This is just the first of several occasions to socialize with the other attendees, with whom you quickly make friends. The pleasant weather made our outside gatherings something to look forward to in themselves.

After lunch comes a third coached practice session, and then, after a break, begins a program of short performances on the main stage by every group. This gives you a chance to get performance experience (including nervousness, mistakes and exhilaration) and to hear what everyone else is doing. You are on stage for only five minutes, but are a member of an appreciative and understanding audience for a couple of hours. The two performance sessions surround the dinner break.

At the breaks and over meals, I talked with people that I played with, but also struck up conversations with the person staying in the next dorm room—or just somebody wearing an interesting T-shirt. I intentionally sat at random tables in the Jolly Giant Commons Dining Hall. We were all given beautiful hand calligraphic nametags at the start so it was easy to get to know everyone’ names—and instruments—at a glance.

Each day, after the last note fades from the final performance, you can rest and recover or, for more fun, freelance with other musicians. You can check parts out from the well-stocked music library—or even bring your own.

As a bass player, I found myself in great demand—I was the only one who brought a bass to the workshop, so anyone who wanted to play something with a bass part in it seized the opportunity and scheduled me for freelancing. My dance card (there were actual dance cards printed—and they said “Dance Card” on the front!) was full before the first day was done.

Playing music all day can be exhausting, and it takes a lot of energy, but the joy of it kept me going—and I could feel it from the others as well. Between the five assignments and five freelance sessions, I had close connection with ten different groups—and there was an eleventh one too. During lunch on Monday, one of the cellists invited me to sit in with the morning cello assembly, where several early risers sat and played a selection of pieces together. Besides enjoying the warm and friendly sound of my fellow bass clef string players, I was able to give them the extra low notes you can only get with a bass. And, it warmed me up for my Tuesday through Friday assignments.

On Friday night, the normal group chat in the dorm lounge grew into a big, loud party, with Klezmer music, food and drink. It lasted until 1 a.m. My bass participated, as I placed it there for the bassists who had brought their cellos and violins to the workshop to use. I played a little, but by then I was just happy to be there.

And happy hardly describes the experience. Joy is a better term. The intensity of the practice sessions and sharing of an experience with others who love the music too makes the week almost a dream—a piece of heaven—in which you give your energy and get so much more in return. I have many great memories—and a beautiful group photo—with a name key on the back. I can’t wait to return next year to make more music with my 80 new musical friends.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Mercedes-Benz GLK - Riding with the M-B Owner's Club

On the first Sunday of each month, the San Francisco Bay Area Section of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America gets together for an informal drive. I’m a member, but I don’t own a Mercedes yet, so for the February drive, I borrowed one of the newest Mercedes models from the press fleet – a Steel Gray GLK 350.

My compact, sharply chiseled five-passenger SUV rolled along with 17 other cars, including sleek two-seat convertible SLs, a classic “fintail” early sixties sedan, a fresh 2010 model E-Class sedan and even a couple of smart cars (Mercedes makes ‘em).

The GLK should appeal to small families searching for station wagon convenience, moderate off-road ability, glorious comfort, complete safety, and reasonable fuel economy. The larger GL, American built ML, and pricey, traditional G fill out the SUV roster in the brand’s 12-vehicle 2010 lineup in the U.S.

We gathered in the now-civilian San Francisco Presidio. We checked out each other’s cars as we pepped ourselves up with fresh coffee and then caravanned out across southwestern San Francisco streets. We joined Highway 1 in Daly City, and then rolled along the Pacific coast.

The GLK is a fine place for driver and passenger. My co-pilot, son David, read off the directions as we stretched out in firm leather seats and looked out over a typical Mercedes dash. The shapes of this brand new model are sharply drawn to match the Jeeplike angular proportions of the car’s exterior. It ends up looking a lot like the more angular Mercedes sedan designs of earlier eras. Everything feels taut, solid, and top quality—just what you expect in an upscale car.

The GLK turns, stops and rolls along with firm precision, but the ride is never punishing. The Agility Control suspension system uses twin-tube shock absorbers fitted with a hydraulic by-pass piston that acts like a very soft shock absorber, dampening road noise and tire vibration on standard roads. When the surface turns bumpy or uneven, the by-pass piston drops out, preserving the outstanding steering and handling response of a stiffer shock absorber.

On our ride, we reassembled in Princeton-by-the-Sea, where some of us purchased fresh crab for later and headed off again. After we turned left onto narrow, winding Tunitas Creek Road and headed east, we were soon lost in a splendid forest, and the GLK provided a great view through the windows and a confident feeling as we wound slowly along with Mercedes-Benzes ahead of us and behind us. The seven-speed automatic picks the right gear for you, or you can use the touch shift to pick your own.

Mercedes-Benz vehicles are luxurious, and the GLK is no exception. Like its predecessors, it can be upgraded substantially. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is one way, and my Steel Gray tester had it, with its 45-55 percent front/rear split and completely automatic operation.

The GLK has a 3.5-liter V-6 under its chunky hood that puts out 268 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. That provides plenty of energy to the two-ton vehicle while delivering EPA mileage of 16 City, 21 Highway. I averaged 18.3 mpg in 20 hours of motoring.

The EPA Green Vehicle numbers are only so-so on the Greenhouse Gas score—a 4 out of 10—but the Air Pollution score is either a laudable 7 or a wonderful 9.5. In California and other high-standard emission states, verify that you’re getting the model that scores the latter number.
It’s a Mercedes-Benz, so you can assume that all the normal luxuries are part of the package. But my tester, base-priced at $37,475 (including shipping) slipped past the $50,000 mark, thanks to many worthwhile but costly options.

The Premium Package contributes auto-dimming mirrors, a rain sensor for the wipers, a power rear liftgate, an expansive panorama sunroof and the joys of Sirius Satellite Radio (monthly fees apply). The Multimedia Package brings a navigation system, exquisite harmon/kardon sound system , a rearview camera and more.

The Full Leather Seating Package adds fancy lighting and burl walnut trim too. Heated front seats are extra. The TeleAid emergency system will cost you too. By the time you add in an upgrade from 19-inch to 20-inch alloy wheels, brushed aluminum roof rails and an iPod interface, the sticker says $50,235.

But it’s all top drawer here. The navigation system says “Please prepare to turn right.” Because you keep the key fob in your pocket when you enter and start the car, a message flashes across the instrument panel when you turn the ignition off—“Don’t forget your key.” Thanks, car.

I’m looking forward to another ride with the Mercedes folks. They love their cars, just as people have for well over a century.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Old Red

When Bea V. saw her brother-in-law’s Volvo 122S, she knew that she wanted one, too. So, she ordered a red 1966 model and picked it up, fresh off the boat from Sweden, on December 31, 1965. Three repaints and two engine rebuilds later, she’s still driving it.

“I didn’t shop around,” says Bea. “I had already made up my mind. It was the right size and I fit in it real well, too.”

The 122s is very much a car of its era, with rounded sides and tapered ends that culminate in single sealed beam headlights up front and oval taillamps in back—each rimmed in thick chrome. The tall, wide grille is split in the center and features a lightweight aluminum grid that wouldn’t look out of place on a contemporary Chevrolet. Though obviously old, it’s still handsome and beautifully proportioned.

Despite Bea’s affection for the car, which she named Old Red, she has not babied it, although she has always kept it garaged. For many years Old Red was a daily driver and it went on family vacations too.

“We took it everywhere back then,” Bea relates. “We used to pull a trailer to Washington and Oregon. It was a workhorse.”

More recently, she and her late husband, Ray, drove Old Red to car shows in Southern California and Oregon. Bea proudly showed me the certificate from when they won third place in the 120 Series Class in the 1999 Volvo Club of America National Meet.

No car goes forever without needing some work. After many years of loyal service, Old Red was running poorly and leaking oil, so Bea had the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rebuilt at 328,000 miles. The odometer broke long ago, but she figures the car must have gone a million or so miles by now.

Bea was kind enough to let me drive Old Red around town. As I opened the door and stepped in, I could smell the “old car aroma” of deteriorating cloth, rubber and vinyl and decades of oil and gas. It’s nothing like the antiseptic, perfect ambiance of a brand new 2009 car. I liked it right away—it brought back old memories.

I sat down on the firm bucket seat and checked the mirrors, which attach to the car on chrome holders as slim and graceful as a flower stem. The shallow dash panel is padded on top, with the lower half of red painted metal. How long since you’ve seen a metal dash? The original top pad cracked after many years of sun, so Bea had it replaced with an exact match.

The large, thin steering wheel features a chrome horn ring and a boomerang-shaped bar serving as the two spokes. “Volvo” appears on it in small script. A few simple knobs are mounted at the lower edge of the metal dash for the few basic functions a car of this era and price class would have—lights, wipers, and heater. A modest Bendix AM radio faces the front passenger.

I snapped on the seatbelt. Volvo was pioneer in offering automotive shoulder belts. These are loops of belt fabric through a heavy metal clasp that hooks onto a steel ring on the center tunnel. There is no retractor reel, so I had to make adjustments to fit it to me.

Old Red turned over easily with a twist of its tiny metal key. I spent some time and effort locating reverse using the long shift lever from the floor-mounted manual four-speed. The shift knob looked and felt like a small doorknob.

Once underway, the car goes easily with the flow of traffic, but it’s no rocket—nor does it need to be. I peered through the flat-glass slit of a windshield at the rounded hood of the car. With unassisted steering, you have a feeling of control while moving, but making turns at very low speeds is challenging. Bea, a petite, slim woman, apparently has no issues with that.

Despite being very different from the 2010 Toyota Prius I’d arrived in, the elderly Volvo felt both like a car should and also conveyed some of the directness that is lost in this age of electronic throttles, power steering, and hermetic sealing from the outside world.

The Volvo 122s arrived in America in the late 1950’s after a Swedish debut in 1956. It looked modern—for the mid-1950’s—and remained on sale in the U.S. as the bread-and-butter model of Volvo’s three-vehicle line, which included sedan and wagon versions of the 122s and old-fashioned 544 and the sporty, low-slung 1800s.

After a 10-year run, the by now dated-looking 122s gave way to the new, boxy 144 in 1966. That model, which was sold in various forms into the early 1990’s, is the car still associated with the brand, even as Volvo’s vehicles have changed and rounded over the last decade.

Last year, Old Red was part of a wedding. The best man and maid of honor got a special ride to the church, all because the young couple loved the 122s.

Just as Bea loves her car. “I’ll keep it forever,” she says.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Ford Fusion is Part of Ford's Good Vibes

There’s been plenty of good news for Ford Motor Company despite the horrible auto market. Not only did the company manage to avoid bankruptcy and government bailout money, but the company has some great cars to sell. The Fusion is one of them.

The midsized Fusion sedan, introduced in 2006, competes directly with the enormously popular Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. American products have struggled in this contest historically, but for 2010, Ford focused on improving any areas that will enhance the Fusion’s status with car buyers.

First of all, they burnished curb appeal with a carefully orchestrated restyle. The changes include a domed hood, more dramatic headlamps and a grander version of the chrome three-bar look offered in the first release of the car. The rear features more elaborately rendered taillamps and detailing, which is part of an overall car industry trend.

Drivers actually spend the bulk of their time behind the wheel, and here Ford paid attention and applied worthwhile upgrades. The dash features padded panels in place of hard plastic and the wheel wears a soft leather cover. The gauges are upgraded to a jewel-like quality with bright “ice blue” lighting. The instrument panel welcomes you with a little sequence that includes sweeping needles and a friendly greeting.

The seats, often a weak spot in American vehicles, have been recontoured, with more side support. The armrests are nicely padded. The shifter is redesigned. It’s a long list of upgrades.
Quiet has been a selling point of luxury cars for decades, and the engineers also attacked this area in the 2010 Fusion. An acoustic windshield, thicker door glass, and revised insulation in the hood, dash, trunk and headliner, along with better body and door sealing, make the Fusion whisper quiet. That improves the perception of quality and also makes for more relaxed freeway cruising.

The Fusion comes in several levels, from the entry S to the well-equipped SEL. It also offers a Sport version and a new Hybrid model. My test car was a Sterling Gray Metallic SEL.
The S, SE and SEL come standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 175 horsepower—an improvement over last year’s 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four. My tester was upgraded to the 3.0-liter Duratec V6, with 240 horsepower. That’s enough to make the 3.400-pound car a strong competitor with the V6 Camry/Accord—on regular gas.

The Sport model uses a 3.5-liter V6 that puts out 265 horsepower. That places the Fusion into competition with a wider range of cars, and could even tempt buyers of more upscale vehicles who have an open mind about the badge on their trunk lid.

The four-cylinder engine, which comes with a manual six-speed in the S model, earns a respectable 23 City, 34 Highway with the six-speed automatic (slightly better than with the manual!). The V6 is rated at 18 /27, with automatic only. I averaged 22.7 mpg.

The EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide gives the four-cylinder a 7 for both Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution scores. The V6 drops to a 7 and a 5.

The Fusion proved to be a good driver in town and for commuting. Engineers made numerous improvements in the 2010 model’s steering, handling and brake pedal feel. I felt engaged with the car. The electric power steering had a good heft to it and assistance varied depending on speed, so parking lot maneuvering felt different from freeway cruising.

The Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) with Cross Traffic Alert identifies when a vehicle enters the defined blind spot zone on either side of your car and illuminates a light on the corresponding side-view mirror; it makes an audible alert too. The system also can provide extra confidence to drivers in parking lots by alerting them sooner of nearby traffic while backing out.

I had a few minor issues with the interior. The textures of the hard and soft plastics were not perfectly matched. The console is home to many buttons, which despite their attractive new look were sometimes a long reach, which forced me to take my eyes off the road to make climate control and seat heater selections. The highly regarded SYNC system had trouble connecting to my iPod. And an electronic voice periodically interrupted my enjoyment of the Sirius satellite radio to ask if I wanted a Vehicle Health Report.

Prices start at $19,995 for the S with manual transmission and no extras. The likely volume-selling SEL starts at $24,700. My SEL, with V6 and a package full of goodies, including audio upgrade, moonroof and the BLIS system came to $28,105.

Motor Trend named the Fusion as its 2010 Car of the Year. Sales are up. In a stormy time, it’s a ray of sunshine. And Ford has more coming soon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ten Reasons Why I Love the Nissan Cube

For some people, boxy is cool. The Scion Xb introduced Americans to this phenomenon six years ago, and today you have a choice. But the Nissan Cube, recently brought to the U.S. after a popular run in Japan, is something special. Here are ten reasons I love it.

1. It’s cute – The Cube is filled with amusing styling quirks, most notable the asymmetrical rear windows – pillar on the left, glass on the right. Inside, there’s a ripple motif on the ceiling and speaker vents, and outside, on the rear window pillars. There’s a whimsical (optional) circle of shag carpet on the dash. The sill plates light up with block “C U B E” letters in blue. The seat upholstery and carpets wear a wave pattern that, combined with the curved dash indent on the passenger side, give the pleasant sensation of sitting in a Jacuzzi.

2. It’s economical - I averaged 28.2 mpg in mixed driving – great for a nonhybrid. The EPA rates it 28 mpg City, 30 mpg Highway. A surprisingly peppy 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine puts out 122 horsepower and 127 lb.-ft. of torque. My tester’s continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) outscored the five-speed manual, which rates 24 City/29 Highway. CVTs use bands rather than gears, so they are always in the torque sweet spot.

3. It’s green – The EPA Green Vehicle Guide gives the Cube a Smartway designation, reflecting its scores of 6 for Air Pollution and 8 for Greenhouse Gas with the CVT. The manual transmission version not only gets lower fuel economy scores, but drops to 6/7 on the Green scores. Manual transmissions may no longer be the best way to go for vehicles that aren’t out-and-out sports cars.

4. It’s inexpensive – Prices start at $14,710 for the base 1.8 model, including shipping. Even this car offers air conditioning, power windows and locks, an AM/FM/CD system and antilock brakes. Moving up to the 1.8 S ($15,410) brings cruise control and premium seat fabric, map lights, chrome inside door handles, steering wheel-mounted controls and body-color outside mirrors. The 1.8 SL ($17,510), like my Caribbean Blue test car, has the CVT transmission, automatic climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels and upgraded audio, among other things. The Krom model ($20,090) goes blingy with special wheels and body add-ons.

5. It carries my stuff – Drop the back seats and the upright bass slides in. I stashed my electric bass and amps under the soft fabric cargo cover, which attaches to the rear seats with Velcro. The rear hatch is hinged on the left and opens like a giant refrigerator door, which reminds me –the Cube’s cargo area holds lots of groceries too.

6. It’s roomy for folks – The back seat slides back for people, forward for added cargo. The split seatbacks recline individually and are nicely supportive. The light gray interior felt airy and open.

7. There’s enormous headroom – The Cube’s shape means a very different motoring experience. The upright windshield is way in front and curves back, giving the feel of a sensually styled delivery van. Big side windows eliminate claustrophobia. Wear your favorite Stetson! One minor issue – the deep sunvisors work great up front but cover only half of the side windows.

8. It’s apparently well made – Considering the price point, the plastics and cloth feel substantial and look well assembled. I heard one plastic squeak in the dash somewhere, but it was only more noticeable because of the hushed sound as you drive the Cube. The leather-wrapped steering wheel, part of the SL Preferred Package ($1,600) conveyed an upscale flavor.

9. It’s fun to drive – The car feels perky in town and stays stable in the corners, thanks in part to an independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars. The CVT delivers maximum torque in all situations so you don’t sense the car shifting gears—just steady power. Freeways at 70 mph are no sweat. The outward visibility and upright seating position impart a feeling of control.

10. It’s got a nice sound system – Even the base car has one, and depending on model, it may include steering wheel controls, speaker upgrades with a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer in the tailgate and a USB port for your iPod. My test car was so quiet on the freeway that I got to enjoy my CDs, plugged-in iPod, broadcast AM/FM and Sirius XM satellite radio on my routine commute.

That’s the top ten. Another consideration is safety—the Cube offers the Nissan Advanced Air Bag System, with front, side and roof-mounted curtain airbags. A Traction Control System and Vehicle Dynamic Control are standard, and security and immobilizer systems keep it safe from theft.

The Cube won Design of the Year from Automobile magazine (January 2010 issue). So it’s not just me who’s smitten.