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.