Monday, December 31, 2012

Mustang Boss 302 - Powerhouse with a History

Ford's perennially popular Mustang is available in multiple variants. I recently drove the GT, which features its 5.0-liter V8 and manual transmission. The Boss 302, however, is an even mightier beast, and relates back directly to the 1969-70 model Boss 302.

The original car was designed to compete in the SCCA Trans-Am racing series, where it battled Chevy Camaros, AMC Javelins, Plymouth Barracudas and Pontiac Firebirds. There were around 7,000 copies sold to buyers who wanted the 428 Cobra Jet engine and other high performance upgrades.

The Boss 302 returned for 2012. I had a chance to sample a 2013 Grabber Blue example. Like the 1970 model, it featured the reflective "hockey stick" graphic along the side and Boss 302 logos. And like the original car, it offered many performance upgrades over the GT model.

To start, its 5.0-liter V8 is pumped up to 444 horsepower from the GT's already formidable 412. There are 380 lb.-ft. of torque to go with that. Yes, those are big numbers, but in the kind of driving I normally do, it meant the car was fast, but, being a modern engine, docile in traffic. I regret I was unable to put it on the racetrack to see what it would do. I had to settle for the occasional trip up an onramp to the freeway.

EPA numbers are 15 City, 26 Highway--averaging 19. I averaged 15.8 mpg, admittedly, in much too much commute traffic. The Green Vehicle Guide numbers are 6 for Air Pollution and 4 for Greenhouse Gas--not bad considering the enormous power the 5.0-liter generates.

The close-ratio six-speed manual was fun to use--although commuting with it was sometimes tiresome. But controlling that much power is a rare treat, and the ball shift knob lent a feeling of nostalgia for the old car (which I never got to drive, by the way). The clutch is upgraded in case you feel like taking the car on the racetrack.

Speaking of racetracks, there's a Laguna Seca model of the Boss 302 (with a badge featuring the Laguna Seca logo inside the shape of the track itself). It further improves the car with Recaro sport seats, a Torsen limited slip differential, revised suspension rates and a larger rear stabilizer (than the standard Boss 302). I've driven at Laguna Seca and it would be a joy to try it with this model. Maybe next year. You can order the Laguna Seca in School Bus Yellow with Sterling Gray accents--an homage to Parnelli Jones' 1970 Trans-Am winning car.

Every Boss 302 has numerous handling improvements, including higher-rate coil springs in each corner, stiffer suspension bushings, and a larger rear stabilizer bar. The front splitter and rear pedestal spoiler not only hark back to the original but provide added downforce and grip.

The model gets special lightweight 19-inch alloy wheels in macho black. They are a half inch wider in back than in front, with Pirelli PZero summer tires configured for each end. Behind these wheels are Brembo brakes with four-piston front calipers and14-inch discs up front; in back, the pad compound is fortified. Top this off with vented brake shields and tuned anti-lock braking and you should be fine on the racetrack, if you're lucky enough to visit one. And when you're there, you can remove the front fog-lamp covers for extra brake cooling.

Regardless of all of these physical upgrades, the Boss 302 is still a Mustang, and it is a somewhat impractical combination of 3,600 pounds of bulk and shortage of useful hauling capacity. Of course, nobody buys a car like this because of its value in helping their friends move or carrying lumber from the yard. The satisfaction comes from the strong, solid, rapid response you get when you press the gas or shift a gear.

Over many years and generations, Mustangs have refined the look of the interior to feel historically authentic while being very much a part of today's world. For 2013, Ford's voice-activated SYNC system has been integrated in. The dash doesn't show you as much at a time as you get in, say the brand-new Fusion, but you can integrate with your music player or phone in a way drivers of the '70 model could only imagine (and probably wouldn't). The 180-mph speedometer and 9K tachometer aid the driver's high speed fantasizing.

One high-tech feature sure to please modern motorists is Track Apps, which uses a 4.2-inch screen to monitor performance measures such as g-forces, acceleration times (quarter mile and 0-60), and braking times.

What does all this cost? The base price is $42,400, plus $795 delivery charges. My tester had $1,995 worth of options, including the Recaro seats and limited-slip differential that you'd get with the Laguna Seca model. If you want this kind of motorized entertainment and presentation, that will not stop you from heading down to your local Ford store.

The Boss 302 does rumble loudly when you start it. My wife heard it in the back of the house when I turned the key in the driveway up front at 6:45 a.m. My neighbors were surely glad to see it go.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lonesome Locomotive Still On Track

Great sound--not a great photo, though (sorry)
I just returned from hearing Lonesome Locomotive again. They put on a great show thanks to some fine musicianship and a good set of songs. The one that stood out for me tonight was Ramble On Rose -- a Grateful Dead classic -- that they pulled off magnificently. They had the crowd at The Starry Plough in Berkeley dancing the whole time they were on.

As the headliners, they played the third of three sets, starting around 11 p.m. until about 12:30 a.m. on a Thursday. Still plenty of folks drinking beer on tap and moving to the beat. I got a chance to hear some of Roll  Acosta--a trio--ahead of the Locomotive. Nice work there, too.

Lonesome Locomotive has picked up a fifth member, who contributed violin, saxophone and trumpet to broaden and deepen the sound. Always glad to hear Mike Meagher's bass playing and there were some THREE part harmonies from the guys.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Flower Furnace - Hitting My Musical Sweet Spot - Again

Light show and all, the Furnace rocks the Bistro
Today, I read a long article in the November 26, 2012 issue of the New Yorker on the music of the Grateful Dead. In Deadhead - The Afterlife, Nick Paumgarten recalls when he first discovered the band in the 1980s as a teenager. Describing his strong attachment to that period of the Dead's output, he says, "People say that the music you liked when you hit puberty is the stuff that sticks with you." He's so right.

That's why I love the Flower Furnace. Their music, ranging from 1965 to 1975, hits my sweet spot--and a little more. In 1965, I was 12, and glued to the radio, where I absorbed Motown, the British Invasion (led by the Beatles, Stones, Dave Clark 5, the Who) and the American hits by the Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paul Revere and the Raiders and many more.

I have what I consider a "phonographic memory" for songs from 1964 to 1968 (and maybe 1969 too)--my middle school and high school years. I know all the words and can nearly always sing along. It does help that I started playing the guitar in 1967 and was actually strumming some of these songs myself, but no other period of my life contains music that affects me this deeply.

Watching and listening to the band at the Bistro in Hayward, California (for the second time -- read my first post here) just reinforced this. How wonderful to be able to absorb the Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love -- the Furnace's opener-- LIVE! 1967 is the epicenter of that 60's musical earthquake that happened in San Francisco, and that song is about as emblematic of the way I felt then as it gets.

What about I am the Walrus--the band's finale? Not even the Beatles played that one live! And although the Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton and Kansas songs the Furnace knocks off so meticulously are not in my golden period, I owned those vinyl albums too. I just couldn't sing along quite as easily on Saturday.

The Bistro crowd responds to these songs, and cheers the musicians on. Three powerful sets delivered the goods. The show went 20 minutes past midnight, and I'm sure we would all have stayed another couple of hours if they had kept playing.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Jeep Patriot - An Affordable All American 4x4

The Patriot may be the forgotten Jeep. It is neither the glamorous and highly regarded new Grand Cherokee nor the legendary Wrangler--direct descendant of the heroic World War II four-wheeled life-saver. It may, however, be a car that a lot of people will enjoy owning and driving.

With the all-American Patriot, assembled in Belvidere, Illinois, you get a car that really looks like a Jeep, from the upright, slatted nose with round headlights to the squared-off, protruding wheelwells to the handy roof rails. Its cousin, the Compass, with which it shares a platform, was knocked for looking too soft, but there's no issue with the Patriot. It actually resembles the longtime favorite Jeep Cherokee, which helped to pave the way for compact SUVs in the 1980's.

The three models start with the Sport and move up through the Latitude and at the top, the Limited. Knowing that many people like SUVs for practical reasons but never take them off-road, you can get a Patriot with front wheel drive only. No-one will know that your car is no more of an offroader than a standard sedan, but it could save you some money and improve your fuel economy a bit.

However, you can order two levels of four-wheel drive. My test car, a Latitude model in a handsome Cherry Red Crystal Pearl Coat, had the higher capacity version, known as Freedom Drive II (are you sensing a naming theme here?) Freedom Drive I offers a full-time active system that's nice to have in inclement weather. You can lock the wheels into four-wheel drive for deep snow and sand conditions, but it's really meant for on-road safety, not exploring on the trails. This system, along with seat-mounted airbags, helped earn the Patriot a "Top Safety Pick" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for the 2012 model.

Freedom Drive II Off-Road Package adds what you need for some fun in the dirt and rocks. It has a transmission with a low 19:1 ratio crawl gear when it's switched into offroad mode. It also comes with 17-inch alloy wheels and all-terrain tires. You get the skid plates to protect the underside of the car, tow hooks and a full-size spare tire. Best of all, you receive the much honored "Trail Rated" badge. If you're really serious about climbing rocks, though, you will want to upgrade to the extra-rugged Wrangler, but you can't touch it at Patriot prices.

There's a special Freedom Edition Patriot this year. It comes in only red, white or blue and features a star on the hood and rear quarter panel, plus some extra comfort and convenience content. Best of all, Chrysler donates $250 to a military charity for each one sold.

Patriots come with one of two engines. The standard engine in the Sport and Latitude levels is a 2.0-liter four that puts out 158 horsepower and 141 lb.-ft. of torque. With a five-speed manual transmission, you can get  a remarkable 30 miles per gallon on the highway. The five-speed manual comes only on the Sport. When you step up to higher levels the continuously variable automatic is standard.

Standard on the Limited and optional on the other models is the 2.4-liter engine with 172 horsepower and 165 lb.-ft. of torque. You'll lose two mpg on the highway compared to the 2.0-liter, but the extra power should be welcome in daily driving.

The EPA gives the Patriot with 2.4-liter engine and automatic ratings of 21 combined (20 City, 23 Highway). I got 18.7 mpg in mixed driving.  The Green Vehicle Guide numbers are 6 for Air Pollution and 4 for Greenhouse Gas (2012 model). Obviously, there are vehicles with better numbers than this--and some that are worse. 

Thanks to dual variable-valve timing, the engine makes the most of the torque curve for higher performance. My tester had this engine and it seemed eager to get up and go, although I didn't take it on any rock climbing expeditions.

Like pretty much every car that has levels, the Patriot gives you more when you  move up. The Sport has a lot going for it already for its low price, including the safety of electronic stability control and hill start assist and conveniences like cruise control and an outside temperature display. The Latitude, as the middle and likely most popular level, throws in power windows and locks, air conditioning, keyless entry, heated seats, and niceties such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a 115-volt power inverter. The Limited, of course, is where you get leather seats with power adjustment, an electronic vehicle information center, a nice audio system with SiriusXM, climate control, and all the trimmings.

The Patriot wasn't as nice when it debuted for the 2007 model year, but over the last few years, new ownership has put money and effort into upgrading every vehicle sold by Chrysler. The inside of the Patriot, while not luxurious, feels well crafted and substantial. Pieces fit together well. It's really a baby Grand Cherokee more than just the least expensive 4x4 sold in America.

This is a highly affordable choice in the compact SUV market. Prices for a manual-equipped Sport with no options start at just $16,920--a remarkable number indeed. My Latitude tester with four-wheel drive and some audio upgrades came in at $26,220.

My only concern about Jeeps is their tendency to not be highly favored by the sharp-eyed folks at Consumer Reports, although reliability ratings are above average. It's likely that the vehicle's age is a factor here, but sales of Jeeps are up--so plenty of folks still want to own one.

Many changes are on the way for Jeep, including a new small SUV based on a FIAT platform. But for the real all-American four-wheeling deal, this is a very reasonable way to take it to the street--and off the road.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Nissan JUKE is Designed for Play

Have you seen a Nissan JUKE in traffic? It's the one with the lights along the tops of the bulging front fenders, tapered tail with lights that look like they came from a late model Volvo station wagon, and in all likelihood a young, smiling driver behind the wheel. The JUKE is designed for fun--and targeted to a generation that doesn't crave muscle car power or the wind in their face like the drivers of those old British sports cars savored.

No, today's youth likes some power and speediness, good handling and, above all, to make some kind of statement. The Juke has that effect on drivers, and I'd like to think, on anyone who sees it next to other cars.

Luckily, the driving experience is not a let down. The little 1.6-liter engine delivers a surprisingly robust surge of energy from its 188 horsepower and 177 lb.-ft. of torque. You can thank the inclusion of direct injection and turbocharging. The power gets to the ground through a manual transmission (if you're lucky) and an advanced torque vectoring all-wheel-drive system. You normally have to spend a small fortune to get this technology.

Now in its third year of production, the JUKE remains much the same as before, but there's a new accessory package called the Midnight Edition. It's available on all 2013 JUKE S, SV and SL models, and features unique 17-inch Black Wheels, a Sapphire Black rear roof spoiler, and Sapphire Black mirror caps.

Not much else new except for three new colors: Atomic Gold, Brilliant Silver and Pearl White.

But what needs to be new? The car already stands out, and not being a high volume vehicle, selling hundreds of thousands a year, it can be given a long lifespan.

Knowing that whatever impression you make with your car purchase, you'll spend most of your time with the car inside it, Nissan's designers have had big fun putting the inside of the Juke together. The console has a motorcycle tank feel to it, with metallic paint, and an instrument panel that resembles a motorcycle's as well. The dash and doors have an organic, convex, puffed up feeling. Surfaces are nicely rendered but not swanky luxurious. That would be the wrong way to go here.

The taut handling, good visability and amusing cockpit made time in the JUKE fun. I especially liked driving my Graphite Blue tester at night, because you can see the glowing lights atop the front corners from behind the wheel. 

The JUKE already gets my vote just by offering a six-speed manual transmission--although, oddly, not on the base S model, which comes with the CVT automatic only. I enjoyed changing gears in my tester, a top-level SL front-wheel-drive model. You can also order up all-wheel drive with it if you feel any urge to take your purchase off road.

The Integrated Control (I-CON) system drive mode selector give you three driving styles. Choose Normal for your regular route, Sport for when you're  feeling frisky and want a more intense feel, and Eco for maximum economy. The system adjusts the throttle, transmission and steering for each driving flavor.

The 3,900-lb JUKE is in that middle to upper middle of the mileage range, with 27 miles per gallon combined per the EPA. The 25 City and 31 Highway could actually be accurate. During my testing I averaged an honest 27.2 mpg. JUKE also carries the PUREDRIVE™ designation. PUREDRIVE is used on models utilizing Nissan's most advanced technologies to promote eco-friendly driving and lower CO2 emissions.

Pricing is reasonable. The base S model starts at just $20,770, including destination charges. The SL with CVT and all-wheel drive sits at the top, at $27,430. My test car hit $26,555, thanks to adding in floormats, a center armrest ($245 seems pricey) and the Sport Package. It adds a roof spoiler and the upgrade to the 17-inch gunmetal gray alloy wheels and a stainless steel exhaust tip.

Is driving supposed to be fun? In the era of the "sporty" SUV, the JUKE offers a great way to stand out (a little) from the herd but still get all the advantages.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ford Explorer Sport Moves Forward--Quickly

The Ford Explorer is widely credited with starting the sport utility vehicle frenzy of the 1990s. Today's rising star is the crossover vehicle, and the Explorer is now a member of that group.

Crossovers have unibody car platforms rather than mounting the body on a separate frame, like trucks do. When the Explorer debuted it was using the truck technology of the day. Today's model is much more comfortable on the road, and that makes sense. Most buyers do not take their cars off the road anyway, even when they have four-wheel drive.

The latest generation Explorer arrived for the 2011 model year. My tester this time was the new, high-performance 2013 Explorer Sport, which lives at the top of the model line. It boasts a twin-turbocharged Ecoboost V6 that puts out 365 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. of torque from just 3.5 liters of displacement (the lesser models make do with 290 horsepower).

That's what Ford is doing with Ecoboost--giving the power of the next engine size up. So, a V6 provides V8 power, and a 1.6-liter four-cylinder moves a car such as the Fusion sedan with V6 enthusiasm. Fuel economy improves with this downsizing. If you want a V8, well, sorry.

The latest Explorer is not much like the original two-box design. It wears the swoops and curves of the latest Taurus sedan. Although Ford is already moving in a new styling direction with its freshest vehicles, such as the Focus and Escape, the Explorer is still very modern and up-to-date.

My Sport distinguished itself with a glowing Ruby Red Metallic paint job ($395 extra). It also wore stunning 20-inch alloy wheels and its face got a grille with a low-gloss sterling gray mesh and contrasting shiny ebony bars. No flashy chrome here!

I noted the name "Explorer" boldly drawn across the leading edge of the hood. With the new Flex wearing its model name proudly too, there seems to be a de-emphasis on the Ford brand and a highlighting of the model name--but we'll have to see.

With the name Sport added to its tailgate, the car offer something beyond the "normal" Explorer--on top of the stronger engine. The Sport gets a stiffer chassis, sport-tuned electric power-assisted steering, larger brakes and a paddle-shift six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission. As you'd expect, it's sporty, but no manual transmission is offered (or likely, requested).

As a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the Sport has a dial on the console where you can select your terrain and the car's electronic system supplies the appropriate ride. This "terrain management system" includes Normal - where it stayed with me - as well as sand, snow, mud, and hill descent. Someday, I'll have to take one of these out in the wild and play with that dial.

Driving the Explorer, I can understand the longstanding appeal of this kind of car. Despite weighing nearly two and a half tons, it moves quickly and quietly, and feels stable and secure. Even though fuel economy isn't that fabulous, the car just feels right on the road. EPA numbers are 16 City, 22 Highway, 18 Average; I got 19 mpg. The EPA's Air Pollution number is 5 and the Greenhouse Gas is 4, so it's no environmental paragon, but it'll carry seven people.

The black leather seats in my tester were supportive and felt like those from a sport sedan. With 10-way power adjustment it was easy to set mine up just right. The perforated chairs offered three levels of heat and cool and wore attractive white stitching.

There are three rows of seats. The third row disappears into a flat floor that worked out nicely for bass carrying. I was able to drop just the slim right second-row seat to do the job, leaving lots of room for folks. Grocery carrying was easy with the third row seatbacks folded forward and the cargo net holding everything in place.

I recently drove a new Ford Fusion, and the Explorer is not quite as "styled" inside. The doors and dash flow smoothly, the trim is a matte gray and the design is calm and relaxed. The Fusion feels frenetic by comparison.

Ford has introduced its Sync and MyFordTouch systems into its vehicles over the last few years. That means you can touch the screen at the center of the dash to make changes in your climate, audio and navigation systems--or talk to the system. Voice commands often work fine, but touching is more reliable.

With MyFordTouch, You can use steering-wheel-mounted buttons to customize the left and right sides of the electronic instrument panel to view what interests you at the moment. I like to look at fuel economy, and you can see it on the left - in bright blue - with current and accumulated figures available. The right side offers navigation, entertainment and vehicle data. I enjoyed watching the three-dimensional compass ball, which rolled around gently as I changed direction.

The Explorer, built in Chicago, comes in a range of models, including the base car, XLT, Limited and Sport. You can even order up one with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder Ecoboost engine--which puts out an unexpected 240 horsepower. Prices begin at $29,955 and top out at $41,545 for the Sport. Add a few packages and you get my tester, at $46,640.

The Explorer, designed, built and enjoyed in America, is a great way to drive a big car and do big things. With smaller, but more powerful engines, it is becoming a touch more environmentally sensitive. If you need a smaller SUV, Ford has other options for you, but this is still the original.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport - Upgraded in Midcycle

Mitsubishi has gone through some changes over the last few years. Some of the old favorites, such as the rugged Montero Sport Ute and the sporty (built in America) Eclipse have gone away, along with the unlamented Galant midsized sedan. Now, the compact Outlander Sport crossover is the brand's biggest seller. Of course, there are lot of folks angling for buyers in the increasingly crowded segment.

I first drove this pleasant little model almost exactly two years ago, when it was introduced. Since then, it's picked up a Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and has moved the metal at Mitsubishi dealers. With its RISE (Reinforced Impact Safety Evolution) body design technology, it protects occupants and shields against damage to the fuel system in a rear collision.

Its looks have worn well, to where the 2013 version isn't heavily changed. Yeah, there's a pretty good looking revision to the bold, Lancer-inspired big-mouthed face, with new grille and fog lamps. New side sills integrate nicely with the revised rear bumper. Every Outlander Sport now comes with 18-inch alloy wheels--no cheap steels. There are two new colors. This is what you do when a car enters its third year to keep it fresh.

Inside, it's now quieter because of better insulation, and the seat fabrics are upgraded. From a health standpoint, the interior materials are lower in volatile organic compounds.

You can pick from ES or higher level SE models. Do you think they have one barrel of chrome S's and one of E's in the factory and just switch them depending on which model is coming down the line? At least the name "Outlander" sounds like something you'd take on an adventure. 

Remaining the same is the durable, proven 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The EPA thinks fairly highly of this one, with an average of 27 miles per gallon (24 City, 31 Highway). That's not going to impress any Prius owners, but it is better than the old SUVs of yore. I earned 24.2 mpg, but a lot of my driving is in commute traffic, so your mileage could be significantly better.

There's a manual five-speed transmission available in the ES model, but you can order up an upgraded continuously variable automatic. The SE comes only with the automatic, with an artificial six-speed sport setting. 

With its crossover SUV configuration, the Outlander Sport hauls stuff easily but still feels contained and taut in town. It sits up nice and high for seeing over sedan-driving folks in the daily commute. You can take the thing off road if you want, but you'll probably want to order up four-wheel drive. My Rally Red tester had only two-wheel drive, which is great for most drivers.

Every Outlander Sport is pretty well stocked with stuff when it arrives. Inside, there's a 140-watt stereo system and a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel. Every car these days has things like power windows, locks and mirrors, but the Outlander Sport also provides a full USB connection for your music and Bluetooth for your phone--and the FUSE hands-free link system. Interesting that this is the first car in which I've added my phone to the Bluetooth using only voice commands.

The SE has more stuff than the ES, including standard SiriusXM Satellite Radio, two more speakers to hear it with, high-intensity-discharge (HID) headlamps, automatic climate control, keyless entry, rain-sensing wipers (a luxury car feature), and more.

My SE tester featured two nice options. For one, it seemed like the entire roof was one huge panoramic moonroof. It doesn't open, but it does expose everyone to lots of sunlight, and it has cool lights around the edges that are a date-pleasing novelty at night. The 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system, with subwoofer, added significantly better sound, although the speakers didn't seem that impressive.

The Outlander Sport saves Mitsubishi a lot of taxes by being built in the good old U.S.A., but local content is only 20 percent. The engine and transmission are Japanese. Assembly quality felt fine to me, and I certainly had no issues during the car's brief stay.  

There's nothing that remarkable about the way it drives--it's smooth and quiet where it needs to be, even though continuously variable transmissions don't make a sporty gear change sound. 148 horsepower is decent but not exhilarating with 3,120 pounds to move, but it's no slug either.

The Outlander Sport starts out pretty inexpensive, to compete against a variety of models from Hyundai Tucsons to Honda CR-Vs to Toyota RAV4s. The ES begins at $19,995, including shipping. My SE, with two-wheel drive but the fancy roof and powerful audio system, came to $27,170, but without the packages would be just $23,000.

Who is buying the new Outlander Sport? Folks who know a good value, I'd say.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tony Rice's Voice - a Lost Treasure

I love Tony Rice's musicality. His guitar playing is sublime--superior--soaring above whatever song he plays and whomever joins him. Tonight I salute and sincerely regret the loss of his singing, even while his guitar picking remains. Tony, 61, suffers from dysphonia, and hasn't been able to sing since the early 1990s.

I first became aware of Tony's genius when he was playing "Dawg Music" as part of the David Grisman Quintet. He left in 1979, but he stayed active, and released albums as the Tony Rice Unit. This was instrumental, in the style of Grisman.

These days, I listen over and over to his incredible album, Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. I savor Lightfoot anyway--having virtually every bit of his work (minus one tough-to-get concert album--probably available in vinyl only). This album is the aural equivalent of a massage. I put it on and lay back and enjoy--and often fall asleep. It got so I had to put the CD on in the middle so I'd get to hear the later tracks at all. This is no fault of Tony--the songs are good rousing bluegrass--but the musicality of everyone is so profoundly affecting that I simply relax. One especially stressful evening when I couldn't sleep I went out to the living room and put it on to try to get some sleep. It worked.

I have a CD called Quartet, by Peter Rowan and Tony Rice from five years ago. It features Tony with bluegrass legend Rowan and two fantastic female musicians/vocalists playing mandolin and bass. The ladies also sing the harmonies, because Tony can no longer do it.

I'll continue buying Tony's music, one album at a time, on iTunes. The Lightfoot tunes are spread across several, but he also has recorded many great bluegrass and folk classics. After listening to my collection as I washed the mountain of Thanksgiving dinner dishes, I just ordered up another album, Cold on the Shoulder. That's a Lightfoot, song, yes. So now I have two copies of Tony's rendition.

But, someday, I'll have all the Tony Rice singing there is, and there won't be any more. That's very sad.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Honda Accord - Ninth Generation Aims High

Does this new Accord look like a BMW to you?
The Honda Accord is a common sight these days. The midsize sedan (or coupe) is one of the top sellers year after year. Funny to think that it started out as such a modest little hatchback in 1976, only becoming a sedan in 1979, and becoming larger and larger ever since.

But that's OK, because it's had an important job to do--displace the old standards, namely the fullsize Ford, Chevy and Plymouth. Today, Plymouth is gone and the Ford and Chevrolet entries, the Fusion and Malibu, are all new, so it is a very interesting playing field now for a midsize car.

The new, ninth-generation Accord may be the best looking ever. It's taken some of its appearance from the car that folks all seem to admire--BMW. Just look at the "flame surfacing" along the sides, and the chrome trim around the grille. There's the Hofmeister kink" in the side window line, too. You have to admit it's nice looking, but familiar, too.

The original Accord weighed about 2,000 pounds and was propelled by a 68-horsepower four-cylinder engine. Today's car has a four-cylinder or a V-6. The new four is a 2.4 and generates a healthy 185 horsepower--and the V6, like my top-of-the-line test car flaunted, generates 278 horsepower from its 3.5-liter powerplant. Of course, the car weighs 3,500 pounds, now, too. It's a whole different deal.

The EPA gives the V6 Accord an average miles-per-gallon rating of 25. That's pretty good. I achieved 22.8 mpg. The EPA awards a 5 for Air Pollution and 6 for Greenhouse Gas. That's average.

Honda is calling their newest engines "Earth Dreams Technology." I haven't found out what this means other than being a positive sounding nomenclature, since the numbers these new engines generate are nothing sensational so far. Honda, as a company, does have a history of working towards cleaner and more efficient engine technology, so this will bear watching. A plug-in hybrid version of the new Accord is due early next year as an early '14. It will not be alone in the market when it arrives--a Ford C-Max and Toyota Prius version will challenge it for ecologically minded buyers. But it is another step forward.

One easy and practical way to get people in non-hybrid cars to drive more ecologically is Honda's Eco Assist technology. There are two "parentheses" around the central speedometer. They glow green when you're driving responsibly and go white when you're not. The goal--stay green! That means not stomping on the accelerator or the brakes. It's more subtle than showing you a gauge or a number. It might even work.

As usual, Accords come in economical DX and well equipped EX levels, with an SE sporty model, too. Now, there is the new Touring model, with enough content to push the Accord up to near luxury car status. Think leather seats, electronic helpers of every type, including safety and confort/convenience features galore. It would be a very long list to name them all, but you can count on keyless locks and ignition, dual automatic climate control, top-drawer audio, seat heaters, rear camera, and so much more.

LaneWatch system greatly enhances safety.

One new and kind of surprising safety feature is the LaneWatch system. You may have heard about blind-spot warning systems that flash a light if there's someone where your outside mirrors can't display, but this new item actually shows you! I noticed that every time I put on the right turn signal, I got a shot of the right side of the car in the display screen at center dash. Well--there is a camera in the right mirror and it switches on, with the aim of preventing a collision when you're turning right. Nice.

The Accord sails down the Interstate and zips around town effortlessly. I didn't hear or feel much, and the nicely proportioned dash, with its carefully rendered surfaces in a variety of textures, was pleasant and felt reasonably upscale. Recent Honda products have received some criticism about the quality of their interiors so this is an important point. I think prospective owners will find a lot to like here. Of course, the instrument panel takes cues from the aforementioned BMW, so that is already helpful. There were great expanses of black, but it was good quality "charcoal."

Honda Accords have been built in the U.S. for thirty years now. The Marysville, Ohio plant--the first of its kind--continues to pump them out--including my test car. Although my tester's sticker showed 25 percent Japanese parts, the engine and transmission were made here. The Accord has been essentially an American product for a long time.

The original Accord ran just $3,995. Yes, that was 1976 dollars, but today's car starts at $22,000 for the LX sedan with nothing extra. My Touring model, with an incredible load of everything you could want, came to $34,220, including $790 for shipping charges. Yes, that sounds like a lot to me, too, for a car that is not an actual BMW, but you should sample the car yourself to see how much it offers.

See my video on Castro Valley TV.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hyundai Azera - The Korean "Avalon"

With the Azera, Hyundai has completed its 24/7 2.0 program. That means they delivered on their promise to bring out seven new or revised vehicles in just 24 months. Pretty darned amazing. The Azera takes off from the popular midsize Sonata and offers a little more room, power and style (and price, of course).

It's hard to remember sometimes where Hyundai was years ago. Odd, derivative, cramped, funny-smelling little transportation modules. But for the last, say, decade, things have really turned around. This new, second-generation Azera sedan offers a long list of standard features, enormous full-size accommodations inside, and, with another take on Hyundai's "Fluidic Sculpture" design template, head-turning style.

The car comes only as a sedan and with just one engine--a 3.3-liter V6, with 293 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque. That may be because it not only fits in size between the midsize Sonata and the luxury Genesis sedan, it reserves the four-cylinder engine for the Sonata and two V8s for the Genesis.

Despite its large-midsize proportions, the Azera gets decent mileage. The EPA says 20 City, 28 Highway, with an average of 23. I got 21.9 mph--still reasonable. Environmentally, the car rates 6 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas - right in the middle. 

The Azera's body is attractive and energetic looking. The customer for this type of car isn't really looking to make a powerfully unique statement, but he or she does want to look up-to-date, and the car has all the right touches. The grille is chrome and prominent. The folds along the body sides are just like you'd find on an Infiniti or even a BMW. The headlamps and taillamps are chock full of jewelry. Hard to believe that not long ago the illuminated parts of cars were plain plastic bars.

Inside, it's a swirl of silvery trim--typical for today, but quite nicely laid out. The only place it looked a little busy was at the windshield pillars, where vents and seams seemed a little forced. At night, the gauges glow brightly and a slim line snakes across the dash and doors. The firm but comfortably padded seats are nice to look at too. Both driver and passenger get numerous get adjustment options--and the controls are right where Mercedes put them--on the door. You could select three levels of heating--and of cooling--for the seats in my tester.

Speaking of seats, Hyundai engineers have developed an impact-reducing seat system for the Azera. It eliminates the need for active front head restraints and is expected to reduce head and neck injuries by 17 percent over the front seats in the previous generation car.

All Azeras come with touch-screen navigation with backup camera standard. No other car in the segment offers this as standard equipment.

Prices begin at $32,000 more or less. That's in the range for cars like this.

My tester came with the Technology Package, for an additional $4,000. For that sizable investment you get 19-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, HID Xenon headlights, power rear sunshade, manual side window sunshades and the potent Infinity 12-speaker Logic7 audio system with subwoofer and external amplifier. There are several other comfort and convenience features included, too.  

I was impressed by the feel of the Azera on the road. It was smooth, quiet, and had an upscale feeling that Hyundai has figured out how to provide. The Genesis, you expect to be that way, but the Azera has it too, for an affordable price. Good work, Hyundai!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kia Soul - Thinking Inside and Outside the Box

The Kia Soul is a tasty flavor of cube-shaped vehicle that you can buy today. You may already be familiar with the Scion xB, which started this whole box-shaped car segment about a decade ago. Then, there was Honda's Element, a little larger, but still the same idea. The Nissan Cube came along too, in a rounded, fanciful, asymmetrical interpretation.

The idea is that some folks don't care if the car is sexy and swoopy--they want a practical ride that hauls people and stuff, and want to be straightforward and non-nonsense. The original Scion xB (called the bB in Japan) was a youthful fashion statement, and over in the U.S. it became a favorite for tuners and custom shops to play with.

The Soul seems to do the best job, it appears at this writing, of getting the recipe right. The xB has become bloated and uncute in its second generation, and the Cube is, well, kind of wacky. I love the Cube myself, with its strange carpet on the dash, single side wrap-around rear window, and water-in-the-lake ceiling shape. But the Kia is more balanced.

The body is overtly boxy, but also has a wedge quality, looking alert, active and even a little macho. It comes in unique colors, such as Molten (like my tester), Dune and Alien Green. The face wears the Kia tiger-nose (pinched in the middle) grille, and the front light pods are fascinatingly complex. The oversize taillamps in back are chunky and look unlike anything else on the road.

It is quite roomy inside, with a clear view out and more of the tough attitude of the exterior. As Kia has matured (and acquired Audi's former chief designer, Peter Schreyer), the look and feel of its cars has been upgraded significantly. The inside feels crafted, with appealing soft-touch surfaces, in shapes that look substantial but not bulky. There's enthusiasm without overexuberance, so you notice and appreciate the look and feel of the car without having your attention drawn to any odd angle or texture. The instrument panel feels like something from a sports car, but the rest of the car is more of a tall upscale sedan.

The Soul comes as a four-door hatchback only, in three ascending levels: Soul, Soul + and Soul ! (exclaim). My tester, as a top level !  model, had, thanks to the Premium Package, surprisingly luxurious two-tone leather seating among other fine features. Typical of Kias since the beginning, there is a long list of standard equipment--no strippers, but you do get benefits of stepping up to a +, including a move from 15-inch steel wheels to 16-inch alloys, keyless remote, privacy glass, and, most important, a jump in engine size.

The basic Soul has a 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine that puts out a competitive 138 horsepower and 123 lb.-ft. of torque. Select a standard six-speed manual or opt for the six-speed automatic. The + and ! get a 2.0-liter engine that bumps horsepower to 164 and torque to 148 lb.-ft.

Interestingly, the fuel economy ratings have just been adjusted, after Hyundai and Kia were found to have released slightly optimistic figures. The original ratings of 26 City, 34 Highway for the 2.0-liter engine with either transmission are now downgraded to 23 and 28 respectively. I averaged 24 miles per gallon. At 2,600 to 2,700 pounds, The Kia scoots along easily with the larger engine.The smaller engine, in a car weighing about 100 pounds less, has economy figures of 2 mpg better.

You can order the Eco Package on the 2.0-liter-engine cars that includes Idle Stop and Go technology that shuts off at lights, along with low rolling resistance tires. It'll get you an extra 1 mpg.

Kias have offered little extras historically to amuse the young crowd. My tester had a setting to add illuminated rings around the speakers in the doors. You can set them for a range or colors--or to have the colors change and pulse with the music! It was an amusing novelty--for a while.

A few little nitpicks. Although the Souls is equipped with numerous sound muffling technologies--and the + and ! get an extra helping--I still heard some road hum on rougher surfaces at freeway speeds.The sunroof in my test worked well but I noted wind buffeting at 30 miles per hour with the windows closed. And, although I appreciated the separate compartment for an iPod, you need a special two-plug cable to use media, and my tester didn't have one.

The Soul is not Kia's least expensive car--that goes to the cute little Rio hatchback and sedan--but prices are definitely affordable. They start at just $15,215, including shipping. The + jumps to $17,475 with manual. The !, with the automatic (the only transmission offered) comes to $20,675. My tester, with the $2,500 Premium Package and the Eco Package ($500), came to $23,675.

It's remarkable that a car like this, aimed at youth, has had significant success with older folks. This baby boomer liked the spaciousness, the ease of entry and exit, easy to fold rear seats that made cargo loading easy, and the quite comfortable seats. 

Kia has seen sales increases for 18 years in a row, and it's easy to see why. Their lineup is completely updated now, and the Soul is just one way to go.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Jack Da Hat Leaves the Stage

It's really hard to believe that Jack Da Hat, a talented entertainer, nice guy and the coolest cat I ever knew, is gone. Details are sketchy, but it sounds like he left us last Friday, taken by an aneurism. More details will surface, but it won't make me feel any better.

I got to know Jack from performing with him and also watching his show. As part of Hayward's Sycamore 129 Blues Band--a modern reformation of the legendary Dawgs, he would slide in and share with us a few of his New Orleans style songs. He'd drop by during our monthly rehearsals--you could tell when he arrived by his knowing smile beneath one of his fine fedoras, and the scent of Old Spice. Jack Da Hat was in the house!

My last chance to play bass behind his stylish lines was this October 7th. Nobody there had any hint that we were enjoying Jack for the last time. He did his great song, "That Night." Hear it here.

Jack Da Hat sang in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades, sometimes with his backup "Jackettes," and always with some good musicians behind him. Jack Luna got his nickname from Carol Doda, the famous "lady" of San Francisco's Broadway, the story goes. He got it because of his ever present hat--and from the way he wore it with confidence and style.

Jack had a chopped gray '59 Rolls-Royce that he cruised around in. It was low to the ground and unique--and suited him perfectly. With his colorful shirt, slim pony tail, sunglasses and ride--he was the best.

And now--he's gone. There is something wrong with that. I don't understand, and it hurts.

I found out about Jack yesterday afternoon, and he's been on my mind since then. Where do our friends and family go when they leave us? Why do they have to go so soon? You can tell me it's natural--the circle of life and death--even "God's will," but it always shocks me when another person I care about vaporizes. You can't help thinking that someday, it'll be your turn to leave people behind wondering and missing you, too.

We sure miss you already, Jack.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ford Mustang GT - Mighty Fun

The Ford Mustang is by now a classic model, known to all from its 48-year history of giving affordable power and motoring amusement to a vast number of folks. The car is approaching its half-century mark and new designs are being teased to avid readers, but meanwhile, the current car is probably the best Mustang ever.

If you're a true enthusiast and have the means, you can pick the mighty Boss 302 (nostalgically named and appreciated) and the $54,000 Shelby 500 road-going beast. However, you don't have to go quite that far to find excitement and muscle-car performance. Even the "regular" Mustang coupe and convertible feature a strong 3.7-liter V6 that puts out 305 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft of torque. Not bad, although the V6 model weighs in at 3,500 pounds.

My tester, however, was the 2013 Mustang GT, with its 5.0-liter V8, through the optional six-speed automatic transmission. Although a six-speed manual is standard, this automatic has a button on the shifter to allow manual gear selection (clutchless, of course). You can hold in the gear you want up to the redline, so it's up to you how you treat your engine and the other motorists.

I didn't use the manual shifting, as it wasn't really a benefit in my typical driving. I did, however, at the urging of my enthusiastic neighbor, take a ride out on the nice, curving back roads in my community and the car sticks great in the turns, powers out effortlessly, and provides a surprisingly comfortable ride while its doing it. And--this might not be good news for some folks--the V8 is well mannered and less macho than you might expect.

Fuel economy is decent, considering the level of performance here. The EPA gives the Mustang an average mpg of 20 (18 City, 25 Highway). I got 18.3, including my backroad antics, stop-and-go commuting, and occasional ventures past 65 on the freeway when it wasn't packed. The car's window sticker gives Air Pollution rating of 6 and a Green Gas rating of 5. That's right in the middle for a car that is much more fun and energetic than the average Camry or Accord. 

My Sterling Gray Metallic test car had the California Special package, which, for $1,995, adds custom mats, side and hood stripes, side scoops and a pedestal rear spoiler. That spoiler looks good and may have some modest effect at speeds over 100 mph (not attempted), but it does obscure the bottom half of any car following you. The original California Special featured T-bird taillamps and striping and badging, too, and is a collector's item today.

The Mustang's history began with Lee Iacocca's genius transformation of the Ford Falcon economy compact into a sporty car for everyone, but went through the "dressed up Pinto" phase before landing on Ford's midsize platform at the end of the 1970's. In the 1990's it regained some of its classic styling, and the latest car is perhaps the best looking ever. It's all there--the long hood, short deck, side scoops, triple taillamps, and good-looking wheels. Of course there's the horse in the grille, too. My car had the logo tucked into the driver's side of the grille--not center-mounted--but it was still undeniably a Ford Mustang even at a glance.

The interiors of Mustangs have not always been the most attractive or hospitable, but over the last decade or so dashboards have become more handsome and squeak-free, controls have the right heft, and the classic look--twin hoods, large circular gauges, pleated bucked seats, console shifter and plenty of Mustang logos--is there to enjoy.

One feature simply  amazed me. You may know that some cars offer "puddle lamps," which are lights that shine onto the ground from under the side mirrors. The idea is to help you see where you're stepping at night. The Mustang has them--and they are large, clear images of the Mustang horse logo.

The car is fine for travel, although the forward-projecting headrests caused me to recline the seatback more than I really wanted. The rear cushion reclines, but the entire seat can be angled electrically to help you find a good position. The rear seats are not for people--but are handy for carrying a jacket or briefcase. For me, the car was useless as a bass carrier. The interior was too tight for the big upright and the trunk, with its bulky subwoofer that comes with the optional Shaker Pro audio system, wouldn't even carry an electric bass guitar. The back seat served the purpose.

Mustangs have always come in a range of prices. My GT Premium tester, with its mighty engine and performance mission, base priced at $34,300, and by the time you add in the optional equipment, hit $40,230. The entry point for Mustang ownership is $22,995, including shipping.

With its long history, great looks, powerful engine, and reasonable entry price, the Mustang, built in Flat Rock, Michigan, is an all-American success story.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Infiniti M56 - Performance. Luxury. Technology.

Infiniti, the upscale division of Nissan, has presented various interpretations of upscale transportation throughout its two decades of existence. The M sedan is today's halo car, with a pleasing blend of performance, luxury and technology. Style and craftsmanship are the mortar between those three bricks.

Just listing the amazing array of features on this midsize BMW/Mercedes/Audi/Lexus competitor would take up more room than I have, so we'll have to look at some representative examples.

Performance is a great place to start. There are two available engines--the 3.7-liter, a 330-horsepower V6 found in the M37 and the mighty 5.6-liter V8, with 420 horsepower and 417 lb.-ft. of torque, that sits beneath the curvaceous hood of the M56. Both engines come mated to a seven-speed automatic. The car comes standard with traditional rear-wheel-drive but you can request the Intelligent All-Wheel-Drive system if you are concerned about traction.

My 2013 M56 was rated at 16 City, 24 Highway, with an average of 19 mpg by the EPA. I accumulated 17.1 mpg--not bad, but premium fuel was running nearly $5.00 a gallon during my test. The 2012 model earned a 6 for Air Pollution and 3 for Greenhouse Gas from the EPA. Big engines have trouble getting a good Greenhouse Gas score, but you can carefully control an engine of any size for low emissions.

Luxury is both a look and a feel. What other motorists see is a bold, curvilinear design that has borrowed something from classic British Jaguars and Bentleys but is comfortably informal too. It's almost prettier than you expect, and it's comforting to look out the windshield at the sensuously proportioned hood. My tester was a Platinum Graphite M56--a formal gray that fits for a car of this caliber.

Luxury is best represented inside, with sublime leather seating, Japanese Ash trim and the long list of amenities that are expected at this price point and market segment. Yes, there's dual-zone climate control, but this car has something even better--Forest Air. As part of the Sport Package (more on this later), it removes odors and then distributes the breeze in an irregular, outdoorsy way. Oddly, when it's  varied like this you are actually more aware of it.

Technology may be the most important ingredient in this super car. A rear-view monitor is nothing that special today, but how about a rear sonar system that detects objects? You have access to the Zagat restaurant guide through the Hard Drive Navigation System, along with traffic and weather information. Rain sensing windshield wipers are no longer a new idea but they fit right in here, along with automatic on-off High Intensity Discharge headlamps.

If you really want technology, though, you have to order the $3,050 Technology package. Here you get a blind spot warning system that tells you, with lights, when someone's next to you where you can't see them in your mirrors. The next step is Blind Spot Intervention, where the rear brakes automatically kick in to guide you away if you try to turn into an occupied lane.

If no-one's there but you need to stay in your lane, the Lane Departure Warning and Lane Departure Prevention systems are there to protect you. Active Trace Control fine tunes engine torque and four wheel braking to keep you poised on curving roads. Forward Collision Warning is part of the braking package that lets you know with flashing lights if you're coming up too quickly on someone in moving traffic. My least favorite part of the Technology Package was the Eco Pedal, which pushes back at you if you drive too vigorously. I'm glad to save gas and the environment, but that's too much nannying.

Further enhancing my tester was the Sport Package ($5,650) that introduced stunning 20-inch wheels to go with lots of "sport" features, such as the Sport front fascia (dark instead of chrome), Sport brakes with four pistons in the front disc and two in the rear. How about Sport seats in front? A Sport-tuned suspension? Four wheel active steering sounds pretty exotic--and Nissan/Infiniti has experimented with it for a while. It just enhances the feeling of agility of this two-ton ride.

Craftsmanship? The pieces fit together perfectly, the materials are top-level and there is such a wealth of things to look at and touch. It's hard to think of anything that could be missing here. The side panels are made of aluminum to save weight, but are hand-inspected to be perfect. You won't get that on a Nissan Sentra.

You'll pay for the privilege of driving an M56. It starts at $61,100, and when you add in the $895 shipping charge you're touching $62K. With the Technology and Sport packages, the bottom line for my car was $70,195.

However, driving a car like this puts you in a different frame of mind. Everything is so lovely, so comfortable and so silent (they even have Active Noise Control, which counteracts engine, road and wind noise). You feel more relaxed in stop-and-go commuting. It feels good to move your eyes and hands over the swirling, exuberant trim and pieces inside. I often found myself feeling the armrest, the steering wheel, the dash, the console.

It's been a long haul for Infiniti--they haven't been the sales star that Lexus has been--but they definitely have found their way today and offer a beautiful alternative to the other upscale four-wheeled choices.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ford C-Max -- A Prius Alternative

The Toyota Prius has been successful partly because it offers something better--and is now an iconic presence on the road. Even people who don't own one or have even been in one know that a Prius is a hybrid that gets great mileage and is environmentally friendly.

Well, who says the Prius has to have all the attention? Ford has offered numerous hybrid alternatives, most notably the compact Fusion sedan and Escape SUV, but those cars look almost exactly like the gas-only versions and can't match the Prius' posted 50 mpg.

Ford has decided to build the Europe-designed C-Max in Wayne, Michigan. The C-Max is a compact but tall four-door hatchback, and will sell only as a hybrid in the U.S. And it not only looks like a member of the new Ford family--it stands apart as a hybrid only. Now the marketing people can take over and create a recognizable brand.

It's a very nice vehicle, as I discovered with a week of driving one. My Blue Candy Metallic Tint Clearcoat SEL model had the feel of a new car but also the familiarity of what a hybrid is supposed to be. The side window line was pretty close to a Prius, I have to admit, but the nose has the new Aston Martin" grille appearance--although it sits low on the prominent plastic bumper, close to the road. 

The real point of a hybrid, of course, is to get high fuel economy and drive clean while you're doing it. There may be a bit of "hey, look at me, I'm driving a hybrid," too, and Ford's high-tech screen actually thanks you for driving a hybrid!

Like a good hybrid should, the C-Max mates a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor to make your fuel fill-ups take you further. The Prius has made a point of showing you a screen of wheels turning and where the energy is coming from and where it's going. The C-Max doesn't, but has a coach to guide in in driving intelligently. It shows you how much power is in the battery and displays when you're charging it by regenerating power while braking. It even tells you the percentage of energy you regenerated. One screen on the highly-configurable MyFordTouch instrument panel lets you grow leaves with your good driving behavior.

The airy cabin is welcome--and a buyer expectation from dedicated hybrids. The windshield goes way forward and there are little triangular panes in the substantial pillars. The various angles and surfaces in Ford of today are always moving your eyes around the cabin, so you don't get bored. The tall ceiling also lends a sense of connection with the outside, but you won't hear much from there. And, when the car's using the electric motor only, it's blissful silence.

Ford's SYNC system is a fascinating look at the future (and some might even say the present) of automotive technology. The problem is, it's frustrating to use. I spent substantial time testing the voice commands for the audio system, navigation system and climate control. I asked for an artist and sometimes got the wrong person. I set up a destination via voice and the car actually took me to the wrong address.

But when it worked, it was satisfying, and even when the system let me down, I kept going back for more. It discovered that it works a lot like software, in that you need to move from one screen to another, systematically. It would be great if the system understood a sentence and didn't need to be fed a series of commands, such as "Audio > USB > Sirius > artist > song." Ford has taken a hit for confusing and confounding its buyers, but this is exciting--even if it feels like we drivers are working as Ford's beta testers.

The car is listed by the EPA as averaging 47 miles per gallon (and the same for City and Highway ratings). Sadly, with my long stop-and-go commutes and in-town driving, I averaged just 37.9 mpg over my test week. That's actually great--and better than virtually any other car I've driven, but the Prius does better and the sticker said 47.

Perhaps it makes more sense to compare the C-Max to the new Prius V, which is more wagon-shaped. My test of a 2012 Prius V recently came up with 38.8 mpg--pretty much a wash.

The Prius has never been been renowned for it's sporty driving experience despite its undeniable competence at everything else. That may be the Ford's biggest selling point. The car handles tautly, and feels more alive on the road. Of course, you're up high, so it's not like a sports car, but the steering is more direct than the Toyota and the engine feels responsive.

At this point, C-Max models include the SE and the SEL, but a plug-in hybrid model is coming soon. Like the Prius Plug-In, it offers fuel-free motoring for a limited distance and you can charge it with a plug and cord to make that happen. For folks not intending on traveling major distances routinely, it could offer the advantages of an all-electric car with the freedom to add fuel and take off for wherever you want.

Prices for a C-Max SE start at $25,200. The SEL, with additional content, starts at $28,200. My car had a $3,080 optional equipment group that included Premium Audio and Navigation, a power liftgate, keyless entry, the high-tech parking technology package, and the charming and aggravating hands-free technology package. Like a Prius, the price range starts out fairly reasonable and moves into entry luxury territory in a hurry.

The C-Max is a new entry in the American car market, and seems to have the right ingredients. Perhaps passing on the SYNC voice interaction would be a good plan, but for hauling your family and gear--with some driving satisfaction--it seems poised for success.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Chrysler 300 - A Fitting Flagship

The Chrysler 300 has been good for Chrysler, and, renewed back in 2011, it has helped return some prestige to the brand.

The 300 series goes all the way back to the 1950's, when the potent Hemi V8 engines were part of the explosion of power and fins that defines that age for us today. The 300 name died out in the mid 1960s, but in 2005, it was brought back to define a new kind of car for Chrysler. After the handsome, softly rounded "cab forward" sedans of the 1990s it delivered a chunky, traditional feel, more like a Rolls-Royce than the designs that preceded it.

I remember, at the time, being surprised at the upright windshield and the high window line. Of course, that high window line has become "normal" for cars now--just look at the latest Ford Taurus--one of many vehicles to follow Chrysler's lead. The 300 was based on a Mercedes-Benz E-Class platform, so it was as solid as it looked.

What to do with the new 300? With the company's revival under Fiat leadership, it got the full beauty treatment. The shape remains, but the windshield is a little bit more reclined, and the surfaces, once edgy and brash, are softly shaped and subtly upgraded. The blocky taillamps now have a gentle curve and edge along their lenses and the deep indent in the lower trunk is minimized. Up front, the once jutting grille is more smoothly integrated, using the marque's slightly angled chrome bar theme.

Inside, time and money have been well spent. A dual-pane panoramic sunroof in my Luxury Brown Pearl Coat 300C tester brought light to the elegantly appointed surfaces. My top-of-the-line model had an impressively thick wood and leather steering wheel--heated of course. The 8-inch screen in center dash was easy to see and use, feeling almost like the interface of an iPad, with touch buttons along the bottom for easy access to the multiple facets of the system.

The real wood steering wheel toned in with the wood trim in the car itself, although I think the trim was not from a real tree. The center console, with its roll-top cover (like a fine old desk) was elegant--although I kept it open most of the time to hold coffee mugs, notebooks, and so on.

The dash panel is one area that really got the love in the new model. It's a deco wonderland of chrome and soft blue lighting worthy of Busby Berkeley or your favorite Art Deco building. Considering that you look at the dash for the whole time you're driving, it makes sense to pour on the pleasantness there, doesn't it?

The seats, covered in my tester in light brown, soft leather, were very comfortable--neither too soft nor too firm, although I'd place them on the softer side of medium. The illuminated door handles added another touch of something special.

Chrysler 300s come with a range of engines. My 300C boasted a mighty 5.7-liter Hemi V8, putting out 363 horsepower through a five-speed automatic to the rear wheels. All-wheel drive is available, too. The Hemi hauled the 4,300-pound car nicely and with very little sound. This is the right feel for a car meant to evoke those Eisenhower years. But, you can also equip a 300 with a 3.6-liter, 292-horsepower V6, which, with its first-in-segment eight-speed automatic, is good for 31 miles per gallon Highway per the EPA. My car was rated at 16 City, 25 Highway (19 Average); I achieved 17.9 mpg in my heavily-commute-oriented week.

The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide numbers for the 300 are 6 for Air Pollution and 3 for Greenhouse Gas.

The car, despite its impressive stance, proportions, and poundage, drives remarkably nimbly. There's some road feel through the steering wheel, and the steering is reasonably assisted, not flaccid at all. Despite being accused of looking like a "gangster" by a colleague, I was actually pretty content inside the 300.

Just because the car's a little retro doesn't mean it's not totally with the second decade of the 21st century. My car had Customer Preferred Package 29T, which includes a parking assist system so you don't need to scrape those lovely 20-inch alloy wheels. The headlamps level themselves automatically. Adaptive cruise control keeps the distance between you and the car ahead and warns you if you approach the car ahead too quickly (even when not using cruise control). I had one instance of seeing "BRAKE" flash at me from the instrument panel when someone stopped suddenly in front of me on the freeway.

Blind spot and cross path detection works like a sentinel to keep you informed of when someone is potentially in your way so you can take defensive action.

I heard things in the optional audio system that I had never noticed in tracks off the iPod I had plugged in and stashed in the center console. With 19 speakers and 900 watts of power it was like few I've experienced.

What kind of price would you expect for this kind of a ride? Well, how about $46,300? Sound like a lot? Look at the list of goodies. It does have its work cut out for it in the competitive luxury sedan market, but it could change some minds about buying North American (it's built in Ontario, Canada). Other than one slightly misalligned trim piece, it looked sharp and tight from one end to the other.

You can pick up a 300 for as little as $30,840 if you like the style but are put off by the price.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Another Classical Afternoon - with Beethoven!

Steve And Amy's basses rest before concert duty
The calendar rolls onward, and suddenly, after less than two months of practice, it's October 14th and time to perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and two smaller pieces! Where does the time go?

I put in my time--two hours a week with the Castro Valley Adult School Orchestra rehearsing, and hours a week at home, in my dining room. I'd pick up the bass and work on the tough parts, where cascades of sixteenth notes complicated the work. The easy parts, with a pizzicato quarter note per measure, I neglected.

Beethoven, by the seventh of his eight symphonies, was mostly deaf and really works the orchestra good. Maybe he was frustrated that he wouldn't hear the output himself, but there is some serious beating on the instruments to get the energetic, sometimes frenetic sounds he calls for in this piece. The second movement, though, is a bit of a respite, although unlike other symphonies, it doesn't feature a quiet, slow second movement but an allegretto--a dance number--that satisfies but is not a real rest. This movement is the sound behind King George Sixth's speech in The King's Speech, and sounds no less wonderful in the Castro Valley Center for the Arts with no stuttering monarch as a visual.

The piece is brisk once again as it moves through the last two movements, with some serious sawing on the strings of the bass. What was the composer thinking? What did he want to say? After our performance, we didn't know, but it was definitely something worth exploring. I may get another opportunity at this work in the future--when I can perhaps play perfectly the parts that I goofed up this time.

Funny, but the couple parts I really wanted to perform well I didn't but some tough areas that I didn't have down did come through today. So--it was a noble effort, and we can all breathe easier knowing it's time, once again, to move onto the next show.

The show was only 1/2 Beethoven. The first half featured two shorter pieces. One was Gluck's Ipheginie en Aulide, a German piece that hails from before the American Revolution.This Opera music was sweet and easy to play--a good way to warm up listeners for Lee Actor's Divertimento for Small Orchestra, which was written last year as a commission. Full of time signature changes and shifts in mood, it was a challenge to play, but rewarding, despite it's extreme modernity.

But the Beethoven was the heart of the program, and we all hope that folks went home happy.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Infiniti JX Crossover - Watch out for Acronyms!

In the early 1960's, musical comedian Allan Sherman took the Jewish song "Hava Nagila" and parodied it as "Harvey and Sheila." Once Sherman got underway, he started including a long list of acronyms--"Harvey's a CPA, he works for IBM..."

In the musical Hair there's the song, Initials (L.B.J.), which starts out, "LBJ took the IRT..." Acronyms abound today, and with the Infiniti JX, they are omnipresent.

The JX boasts a long list of safety and convenience features--all acronyms--that make this one of the most high-tech rides I've ever had.

Where to begin? Let's start with BCI-- Backup Collision Intervention. It can tell if a vehicle is approaching from either side as you're backing up. If a car appears to be entering your path, it gives you three layers of warning - a light, a sound and, if you don't do anything, through the pedal itself. It can apply brake pressure  if you don't take action right away, saving you from disaster.

There's so much more. The Around View Monitor (AVM), with Moving Object Detection (MOD) shows you a 360 degree view around the car--it looks like a direct overhead bird's eye view--and then warns you of possible problems around you. Along with the BCI, this electronic nanny could be a lifesaver, but it also seems to assume that drivers aren't bothering to look around them as they're driving.

The list continues. The Lane Departure Warning (LDW) system, with the even more overt Lane Departure Prevention (LDP) system use a camera behind the front mirror that monitors the lines in the road to see if you're keeping near the center of your lane. If you don't respond to the warning light or buzzer, the system can exert braking on the opposite side of the car to help pull it away from danger. '

Still with me? The Blind Spot Warning (BSW) system flashes a light if there's someone in your blind spot along the side, and makes a noise if you put on the turn signal while you're driving along with that left-lane person. It can help straighten you out if necessary with braking inputs. The standard Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) includes an individual tire pressure display and Tire Inflation Indicator.This is just the top of the list.

Despite this parade of high-tech inventions, the car holds seven passengers, all in comfort, and offers an interesting new design language for Infiniti. It's nice looking, but does have a large, chrome fish mouth much like its FX and EX siblings, and the rear corner window pillar features what they're calling a "crescent" shape - more like a jiggle.

You may recall that Infiniti's first car, the Q45, was a large sedan with no grille at all--just a Samurai belt buckle on the nose--and it was introduced with a head-scratching campaign that didn't even show the car--just trees and rocks.

Well, the all-new JX is quite powerful, with its 265-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine. With 248 lb.-ft. of torque, it's no slug on the road despite its 4,419 pound weight. Fuel economy, per the EPA, is an average of 20 mpg--I got 18.7. (EPA figures are 18 City, 23 Highway). Green Vehicle Guide numbers are 6 for the Smog score and apparently 4 for Greenhouse Gas. The standard and only gearbox is a continuously variable transmission, which comes with either two- or all-wheel drive.

My Black Obsidian tester had power to all four wheels. Inside, on the console, is the Infiniti Drive Mode selector. Use the dial to choose from Standard, Sport, Snow and Eco modes. A car with the brains of this one can alter many things, including throttle response and transmission behavior, so you can customize the car to your liking.

The three rows seating is especially flexible with a sliding middle row, which you can move up to 5.5 inches up or back to supply more legroom in the second row or maximize cargo capacity.

This is one luxurious vehicle, but my tester had four extra packages on it. The Technology Package included not only some of the high tech goodies mentioned above, but a heated steering wheel and remote start. Remote start lets you, as seems obvious, start the car without being in it. Why do that? Well, on a hot day you can get it cooled off before stepping in; on a cold day, vice versa.

The Theater Package provides dual seven-inch monitors in the back of the rear seats with wireless headphones to entertain your passengers.

The Deluxe Touring Package jazzes up the the exterior with 20-inch alloy wheels and the inside with a potent Bose Cabin Surround sound system. Letting the outside into the inside is a panoramic sunroof to give a sky view to second and third row passengers. Rain sensing windshield wipers wipe just when needed. This is no less miraculous than the drier that stops when it can tell your clothes are dry. Climate-controlled front seats (they cool too) and heated seats for rear passengers live in this extra package.

The Premium Package serves up Infiniti Connection with a navigation system. With voice recognition, you can request things like Zagat restaurant guide information and traffic reports along with simply requesting directions. Infiniti Connection gives you electronic access in an emergency, much like the well-known OnStar system.

The JX, assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, starts at $40,650 for the two-wheel-drive model and $42,050 for the all-wheel drive one (plus $950 for transportation--doesn't that sound like a lot?). My tester, with all its extras, including roof rails, came to $55,170, which puts it in some rarefied company in the marketplace.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Land Rover LR4 - Be Careful How You Use It

It's a rare treat to test a Land Rover. Designed to tackle the challenges of driving off the pavement and also to look sharp at the country club, these upscale British vehicles have a long history and a special panache.

At the top of the lineup, the Range Rover is king. But a little smaller and easier to manage--both to drive and to finance--is the Land Rover LR4.

You can tell it's a Land Rover, from the bold upright textured grille to the tall rear windows to the side scoop in front of the front doors to the name across the rear asymmetrical tailgate. And inside, it's a special experience too, with rich leather, handsome metallic trim and a killer sound system--as well as highly sophisticated offroad driving technology.

The LR4 is a polished beast. Despite its medium-size SUV appearance, it weighs 5,659 pounds. This gives it a real sense of owning the road (it's pressed down onto the tarmac pretty forcefully). Lucky for its pilot, though, the LR4 comes with a mighty 5.0-liter V8 that churns out 375 horsepower and an equal amount of lb.-ft. of torque. That's good for about a 7.5-second zero to sixty time -- if you feel like driving it quickly.

Of course, you do pay at the pump, and I eked out just14.7 miles per gallon over my test week. The EPA gives the car ratings of 12 City, 17 Highway. The environmental scores are mixed: the Air Pollution score of 6 is surprisingly good, but the Greenhouse Gas score of 1 is the lowest I've seen on a test car.

Inside the car, all is padded, top-quality, and looks like it can withstand any rigors you toss at it. There is a triple sunroof overhead, two gloveboxes, and room for seven folks with all the seats up. I found that with the rear seats folded flat, the 40/20/40 second row made carrying long slender loads easy--even with four passengers. The bass fit in easily--and with the luxurious carpet and low cargo floor, it was a snap.

The front seats themselves are worthy of any posh club or your living room. The leather is old world--soft and supple--and the cabin feels friendly and familiar. I thought the wood trim on the front console looked like it was not originally from a tree, but the doors are lovely to see. 

The audio and video in the car was top-of-the-market. Enjoy the 380-watt harmon/kardon system with its 11 speakers or step up to the The 825-watt Logic7 system with its 17 speakers! Rear riders get twin screens on the two front seatbacks and cordless headphones to watch whatever their hearts desire. The DVD changer is up front. You can connect your game console to take the fun on the road, too. "Are we there yet? Who cares?"

I'm not sure many happy owners take their beautiful four-wheel-drive baby offroad but if they do, there are many ways to tackle it. The fully integrated Terrain Response system lets you move a dial on the center console to select from five different settings, each represented by an icon:
  • General Driving - Where I kept it for my test week
  • Grass/Gravel/Snow - For when you're worried about your wheels slipping
  • Sand - Sand Launch Control makes it easy to start out without getting bogged down
  • Mud and ruts - Bad dirt roads become something easy here
  • Rock Crawl - It applies low level brake pressure when you're maneuvering around on rocks in first or reverse at low speed
You also get Hill Descent Control, which keeps you from rolling too quickly when going downhill. I tried this years ago at an event and it's amazing--and works all by itself. Gradient Release Control also pitches in when going steeply downhill, supplementing braking even when you're not pushing on the pedal. Even more - Gradient Acceleration Control works on the brakes to keep them pumped up and ready for anything. I'm not sure I understand exactly why there are so many different bits of technology at work, but it is a thing of wonder. And it won't make a bit of difference if you just go back and forth with your LR4 on the interstate.

What goes down must sometimes go up. For that, there's Hill Start Assist, which keeps you from moving backwards when you're climbing a hill and move your foot from the brake to the accelerator. Nice when driving in San Francisco.

The remarkable Surround Camera System gives you a near 360-degree view around the car, thanks to five digital cameras. Yes, you get special features in a car like this.

Pricing? If you've been shopping Range Rovers, this will seem like a bargain. The "standard" LR4 begins at $49,950, including shipping. The HSE model, like my tester, comes to $54,175.

The feeling of driving a car like this is intoxicating, but may lead to bad behavior if you don't control yourself. The high, royal driving position, along with the sports car engine power, led me, in a fit of impatience, to change lanes and cut someone off. I knew I could make it, but the man was not amused and followed me home to tell me so. He was right, and I apologized. With great power comes great responsibility, right? If you buy one of these, be careful how you use it.