Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mazda CX-5 - An All New Crossover

Photo: Victor Llana (
The 2013 CX-5 is a look at the Mazda of the future. All new, and the first Mazda to carry all of the company's SKYACTIV TECHNOLOGY, this compact crossover SUV has something else you won't find out there--a manual six-speed transmission. Yes, the folks who have brought you the wonderful little MX-5 Miata for more than two decades let you choose your own gears.

According to Mazda, SKYACTIV TECHNOLOGY is not a package or trim level but an all-encompassing philosophy that obtaining more power, more torque and more miles per gallon does not mean sacrificing fuel economy, design or safety. It represents lots of small things the company does to improve efficiency and reduce weight. The Mazda 3 sedan and five-door compact introduced elements of it but the CX-5 is the first Mazda to have the whole deal.

You can decide how much is real and how much is marketing, but Mazda says that CX-5 began with the philosophy of Jinbai ittai, the oneness between car and driver, which is instilled within every Mazda. It also has a new design philosophy--getting away from the "Joker" grin grille and wavy lines as seen on the Mazda 5 mini-minivan and into the new KODO motif. KODO, or "Soul of Motion," is a design language inspired by nature. It was first unveiled in 2010 on the SHINARI concept car, a four-door sports coupe, and then on the MINAGI concept SUV, on which the production CX-5 is based.

As part of that new design language, the car's face carries the new five-point "signature wing" front grille. I noticed that the body itself, as well as the all-new interior, features an interplay of edges and smooth surfaces, and the transition from one to another. BMW started that years ago, but these are subtle--and even compelling. For example, the scallops on the sides of the car seem to emerge from the convex surface and retreat again. The tops of the interior door panels are folded over but over the length of the door fade into a soft curve. I found this over and over, even on the smaller places on the instrument panel and places like the outside mirrors. A lot of thought and planning went into this, and it makes the design feel unified.

Some of this, according to Mazda, is for improved airflow, for example the side fins on the rear spoiler. The .33 coefficient of drag is excellent for a tall crossover vehicle.

The CX-5 uses a 2.0-liter engine that puts out 155 horsepower and 150 lb.-ft. of torque, which feels like enough. Like the Miata, it isn't impressive for sheer power but more how it works in sync with the whole driving experience.

Fuel economy is good, at 26 City, 35 Highway (average 29) for the two-wheel-drive model (all-wheel drive is optional). I averaged 30.1 for my test week.

What's really nice is the price. CX-5 Sport models equipped with the six-speed manual transmission start at less than $22,000, including shipping. Add $1,250 for all-wheel drive. That's pretty reasonable, especially for a car that feels so upscale.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Engines of Change - The 15 Most Important Cars

Paul Ingrassia wanted to write about the 10 most important cars in American history. He ended up with 15--which is good because we get five more great stories. Ingrassia, who in 1993 shared the Pulitzer Prize with Joseph B. White for his work on management crises at General Motors, is more than qualified to write this new book. He was the Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. Yeah, he knows his stuff.

Ingrassia's new book, Engines of Change -- A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, is next on my reading list, since I was lucky to get an autographed copy last night when he addressed the Western Automotive Journalists in the San Francisco Bay Area. But much like a college student at the last minute, I will issue my report without reading the actual book, but based on Ingrassia's amusing and insightful talk.

The 1908 Ford Model T is an obvious place to start. It changed the lives of  millions of people with inexpensive mobility and the $5-a-day jobs it created.

The 1927 LaSalle introduced luxury and style to the ancestors of the Yuppies. Folks loved the Model T but it was basic transportation.

The 1953 Corvette -- of course it's included -- but it was almost cancelled after one year and may have been an automotive footnote if not for the Russian Zora Arkus-Duntov, its designer and champion.

How about those towering fins on the 1959 Cadillac? Still an icon of 1950s excess.

Volkswagen Beetle and Microbus? Of course--the antithesis of the Cadillac. Back to basics. Sold in the U.S. so Germany could raise cash to rebuild their economy.

How about the Chevrolet Corvair? Vilified by Ralph Nader, it was a game changer, and the legal precedents came into play in the mid 1990's McDonalds hot coffee case.

The Ford Mustang? Drop a sexy body onto the lowly Falcon's platform and bingo. Secretaries become sexpots. An American legend for nearly 50 years.

The Pontiac GTO helped bring in the short-lived but socially significant muscle car era. It's important for the songs alone--Ronnie and the Daytonas' hit song is still played regularly.

The 1970s were in many ways tough times in the U.S. We had oil crises, Watergate, Disco. The car industry suffered, but a hero (and still champion) was the modest Honda Accord. A small car, it's big today--both in size and sales volume, and was the first to start American production of Japanese cars--common today.

The Gremlin--no, it's not on the list, but Ingrassia thought about it.

The Chrysler minivans were just what baby boomers needed in the 1980's and they became a whole new market segment, replacing the station wagon. Boomers had many less than happy memories of those family haulers. Hello, soccer moms (a new classification).

The BMW 3 Series and its ancestor, the 2002, saved the company and it's still the go-to sports sedan. It epitomized the 1980's style of success--nothing like the "fancy" large cars the Yuppies' parents coveted. The 3 still wins in the buff magazines.

Jeep? It made its reputation in World War II but was moribund until Chrysler bought it and created the Cherokee--the perfect vehicle for offroad intenders. Then came the LL Bean catalogue, Patagonia, and the other outdoor lifestyle products and nobody looked back.

The Ford F-150  pickup outsells everything else year after year. What could be more American? It's country music on wheels--and represents many things, including a huge voting bloc in the Red States.

What car is most important today? The Toyota Prius. It is the "Kleenex" of hybrids--universally recognized, loved and despised, and hugely popular (now four versions available) -- and truly significant.

And there you have it. Did he leave out anything? Can't wait to read the book. Then, I'll think about writing a actual book review.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cars - the Movie - Revisited

We all know now that Pixar is incredible, and Cars is one of those great movies that bears rewatching.

Last night, my colleagues hosted a movie night at work, and the small contingent of us who were motivated stayed after for a couple hours to watch Lightning McQueen, Mater and the rest of the cars go through their heartwarming transformations.

The beauty of Cars is that it's a great story. The fact that it's cars in all the roles is almost incidental. The breathtaking look of the production--from the incredible scenery in the desert to the racetracks filled with cars--in the seats!--to the surprisingly expressive faces on the vehicles themselves makes it highly rewarding.

As I chewed on pepperoni pizza I saw Lightning transformed from a selfish egomaniac into a caring "person" while bringing life back to the sleepy forgotten town of Radiator Springs, a sad victim of the change from U.S. two-lane highways to the Interstate freeway system (a real story).

The countless automotive references are a riot--mountains that look like Cadillac Ranch and a heavily chinned Jay Leno car for example--but also in the use of Emeryville (home of Pixar) and John Ratzinger's hysterical comments on the "autoized" Pixar movies that show in the resuscitated drive-in theater (and all use his voice). That's Richard Petty talking for the light blue number 43 racecar. Paul Newman, quite a racer himself, is touching as Doc Hudson. Even he is revived by Speed's presence.

Actually, the movie is packed with great voices, from Cheech Marin to Tony Shaloub to the Magliozzi brothers. 

I love this movie!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wind Symphony Satisfies

I just got back from an enjoyable evening of orchestral music--without a single stringed instrument on the stage. Instead, it was a wind symphony, known also as a concert band, filled with a skilled contingent of horns and woodwinds--backed by a powerful percussion section.Over the course of the show we would hear a brass quartet, brass ensemble, woodwind ensemble, and in the second half, the whole group together.

I need to thank Amy, my fellow bassist, who not only played with me last Sunday on Beethoven and Balalaika music, but performed as a tuba player tonight with the group. That's a tuba pictured.

I heard the CSU East Bay Wind Symphony, along with separate ensembles from it, in the theater at the Hayward, California campus. The group was expertly led by John Eros, who kept the beat perfectly with his baton.

The show began when four young men in tuxedos walked onto the stage with their trumpets and trombones. They played Paul Hindemith's Morgenmusik from Ploner Musiktag, from 1932. It was kind of a wake up for the audience to focus their attention. Nicely done, with sharply defined harmonies and everything tidy.

Then, the rest of the brass joined the four to play Vaclav Nelhybel's Numismata (1965). Pretty impressive with the two tubas, French horns, and euphonium. Then, they all exited, stage left and turned the show over to their woodwind colleagues. Not only were there clarinets in abundance, but a saxophone or two, a row of flutes, and even a contralto clarinet--so large it sat with its bell on the ground while the curving tube delivered the mouthpiece to the proper height. You could hear it holding down the bottom, especially before the tubas joined it in the second half.

The woodwinds got some heavy support for the following selection, In Another Time, a newly composed work by Nicholas Vasallo, who teaches at the university and created this lively piece especially for this concert. It's great to hear music by living composers, and I got to meet him afterwards. The bass drum player jumped into the air as he struck powerfully on his instrument during this piece. Nobody would sleep through this exuberant composition.

The intermission gave me time to stretch and to talk with Lea, my orchestra colleague, who had joined the group on French horn for the concert.

The combined forces of the woodwinds, brass and percussion opened the second half with a rousing John Philip Sousa march, The Black Horse Troop. Then, a change of pace, with two pretty Irish melodies by David Gillingham--one traditional and one newly written in 2000. The grand finale was the martial-sounding Symphony No. 3 by Boris Kozhevnikov. It had me wondering what was going on in the Soviet Union back then. Had party secretary Khrushchev pounded his shoe at the United Nations yet?

Then, applause, and it was over. The nicely dressed, pleasingly skilled musicians left the stage. It was surely worth much more than the $5 ticket I had bought. I walked into the cool evening air in a happy frame of mind.

As a string player, I tend to think along the lines of the "full" orchestra, but these guys really did a great job.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Goodbye, Robin

Robin Gibb died today. I really hoped that waking up from his coma was the first step on the road to recovery--but inside, I feared that he was too ill to make it. Now we know.

In my headphones as I write this I can hear Robin singing And the Sun Will Shine from the 1968 Horizontal LP. I had this album as a vinyl LP, and I spun it regularly--and listened with my Koss headphones. How much and little has changed.

Robin's music lives on--thanks to recordings--but the BeeGees is reduced to Barry.

I don't know what to say--and that's unusual. How do you assess the loss of someone you never met or knew but felt close to for 45 years?

I'm adding two of the last BeeGees CDs to my iPod right now. Still Waters from 1997 and This is Where I Came In from 2001. This one was the final BeeGees album--Maurice died in 2003. Sigh.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Acura RDX - Redux

Photo: Victor Llana (
I just stepped out of the new **2013** Acura RDX. And what a fine test week it was. All-new but familiar at the same time, it's a compact luxury crossover, combining the practicality of a wagon configuration with the tall proportions of an SUV with all the comforts of an upscale sedan. Lots of folks buy these vehicles now, because they seem to provide for every need. It's the baby brother/sister to Acura's midsize MDX.

This is Acura's latest salvo in the battle for moderate sized families with larger than moderate incomes who might be liking the Lexus RX, BMW X3 or Infiniti EX. Yes, there is a battle in that segment--as there seems to be in every auto segment these days.

Getting nearly 21 miles per gallon is OK, but I'd just stepped out of a hybrid and it seemed like I spent more time at the gas pump than I should. But the little hybrid, just over half the price of the Acura, didn't supply the comforts or the styling of the RDX.

The RDX's face shows the evolving concepts from Honda's upscale division. The sharp beak that appeared a few years ago is softening throughout the line, and this new car has a softly formed crossbar that might not be out of place in a 1950's vehicle (real chrome in that case, not faux brushed nickel. The overall body shape is edgy--the Acura look for today--and fits into the corporate family portrait just fine.

Inside, more edges, and in places like the doors, the styling is overt and even a little overheated. So many aggressive shapes all over the door panels, for example. To keep this from becoming a distraction, they've made them all the same matte "Ebony," which would feel a little sober if not for the energy of the shapes themselves.

There's plenty of pep when you step on the gas. There's a 3.5-liter V6 that churns out 273 horsepower under the multi-angled hood. The six-speed automatic provides smooth shifting by itself and allows you to select the gears--a common arrangement today.

You can get the RWD in front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive configurations. Mine was the latter, and it was inconspicuous. It would be nice to avoid putting on chains on the roads to the ski resorts, I guess.

My car also had the Tech Package, which added things Acura seekers covet, such as a navigation system with voice recognition, Real-Time Traffic and Weather, and a 10-speaker Surround-Sound audio system. I got spoiled with all that, and actually used the Real-Time Traffic when things clogged up on my morning commute. It told me where the problems were and described the issue. A small comfort, but at least it left no mystery. I dug deeper into the sound system to calm myself as traffic slowly inched along.

My Crystal Black Pearl test car came to $40,315, which seems like a lot. I guess when you add in all the goodies it totals up fast. There's really nothing I can think of that was lacking. The least you can pay for one of these is $35,215; just drop the all-wheel drive and the Tech package.

Despite it's intense design, the car is very comfortable, and I got more and more happy with it as the week went by. There are some things you just don't get in a $25,000 car that a $40,000 one is more than happy to supply.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Prius C - The Cute Prius

Photo: Victor Llana (
In case you haven't been paying attention, the Toyota Prius, the world's most successful hybrid, is now a family of FOUR models. Not only is there the "regular" Prius, now subtitled the Liftback, but there's the Prius V, a larger wagon style model and an electric plug-in version of the Liftback. It's the first Prius you can charge--and you can get up to 13 miles of completely fuel-free motoring out of it.

The new Prius C brings gas/electric power to the masses, slotting in below the Liftback. The engine is smaller, but the principle is the same--a gas engine part of the time supplemented by an electric motor for maximum fuel economy. As with other Prii, you find yourself using gas on the freeway, but often running on battery power alone on surface streets. The car shuts off at traffic lights.

This means an average of 50 miles per gallon per the EPA--53 in town and 46 on the highway. In reality, I achieved 47.3 mpg--still about as good as it gets short of a pure electric. You can get a wealth of information about your fuel economy in charts, graphs, and lists of information on the numerous screens on the dash. Just push buttons on the steering wheel and it's all before you. There's the same flow diagram as on other Prii, but reduced in scale, that shows you where the energy to run the car is coming from--and how the battery is being charged. You have to be careful not to lose your focus on the road ahead. As in other Prii, you can learn to drive more efficiently by paying attention to the numbers.

The thing is, despite its fuel-saving mission, this car is nice to live with on a day-to-day basis. Inside, the surfaces have the multiple textures that other Prii have. It used to be that all plastic in cars tried to replicate leather or pigskin. Now, it could be rice paper or a kind of wavy line pattern. It's light gray and charcoal here, with some fanciful rolling gridwork that makes the surfaces pulse organically. A blue trim line tones in with the blue plastic motif on the floor shift lever of the automatic--the same plastic insert as found on the big Prii.

The car is a good foot shorter than a Liftback--I know because I parked next to one--but it doesn't feel shortchanged inside. There is real rear seat room for a full-sized person back there, and adequate headroom, too.

The Prius C comes in four levels. Level one gets a surprisingly level of standard fare, including full climate control, a multi-information display, AM/FM/CD with Bluetooth, Level two throws in cruise control, split rear seats and a rear cargo cover. Level three adds a smart key--a real upscale feeling item--and upgrades the screen interface. My test car was a three--in Habanero--a friendly and comment-inducing orange. Want alloy wheels? That's level four--with artificial leather covered heated front seats.

Prices start at $19,710--including shipping. The top price, not including any options, is $23,990. So, it gives you lots of choices before you even touch the Liftback.

With 1.5 liters of engine putting out just 73 horsepower, and a combined horsepower rating of just 99 including the electric motor, performance is not exciting. With just me in the car, it was a competent hauler on streets and freeways--quiet and smooth. And with nearly 50 miles per gallon, it's cheap to run.

This is a cheerful, easy-to-like little car. The small dash screen greets you with a cute Prius C image zooming by and says goodbye when you turn it off. It should make the Prius an even stronger brand--and make it a purchase option for young, first-time buyers.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Scion tC - With Something Special

Photo: Victor Llana (
I just spent a week zipping around in a Super White Scion tC. It's definitely a car for the young--or the young at heart.

The tC is a hatchback coupe--not one of the boxes (xB) that has been part of Toyota's youth-oriented brand since its debut in 2004. That means it's a bit more stylish (at least in a traditional car way). The car got redone for 2011, too, which brings more assertive lines inspired by the Scion Fuse concept designed at Calty, Toyota's California studio.

One of the things Scion has always pushed is the monospec concept. Pick a model, transmission and paint color and then--customize away! There are any number of different sets of wheels, spoilers, audio systems and other aftermarket items to add--and many you can spec out right at the dealership.

For example, my car had a heavily upgraded audio system, which, for $1,999, added a 7-inch touch screen and navigation system. It also wore a sharp set of 19-inch alloy wheels ($2,199) and performance exhaust ($699) from Toyota Racing Development (TRD).

And beyond that, my 2012 tester had a special body kit by Five Axis. Read about Troy and his design ideas. The kit was subtle, and extended the body down towards the ground, as a good body kit should. It didn't look added-on, which is the highest compliment.

The engine got bumped up to 180 horsepower in '11, up 19 hp. New intake and exhaust systems improve performance--and give it a more appealing sound when you step on it.

Fuel economy is rated at 23 City, 31 Highway (average 26 mpg). I got 24.7.

Tc models start at $18,995 for one with a manual transmission. Mine, with an automatic, a rear lip spoiler ($444) and the aforementioned extras, stickered at $26,368. The body kit wasn't on the bill--that would cost more.

This is not a fancy car--the hard, black plastic interior is not luxurious, and even showed a few mold marks, but it is a fun one. I felt younger in it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lexus GS 350 - First of the 13's

Photo by Victor Llana (
Some cars are OK but others come loaded with fresh styling, luxurious accommodations and plenty of high-tech features that make them especially noteworthy. Put the brand new Lexus GS 350 in that second category.

This was my first 2013 test car (wow--in April 2012). The Lexus folks don't mind saying the obvious--a lot is riding on this new model. It's their midsize luxury/performance entry against cars like the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6. Amazingly, in a comparison test in the June 2012 issue of Motor Trend, it came out on top as a freshman! Remarkable.

The car looks new because it is--taking the best of the concept car styling to look impressive. The biggest eye-popper is the new look front--which uses the "spindle grille" that Lexus hopes will become as recognizable as BMW's famous twin kidneys. Not only does the air inlet pinch in the middle from the front view, but from the side, you can see some serious chin that puts Jay Leno to shame. It's pretty overt for Lexus. We'll see how folks like it, but it's the new look of the brand so you can expect more in other models.

This is a 306-horsepower car that can run the 0-60 in 5.7 seconds. It gets an EPA average of 23 miles per gallon doing it, too (I earned 21.9 mpg during the test week).

I liked that the interior features worked the first time. The Bluetooth phone hookup was a snap and the USB port grabbed my iPod exactly where I left it and played away. Everything is very easy to see because there's a huge center screen that shows the usual rectangular monitor for maps, etc. but it also has another adjacent display. So, you can see what's happening in multiple realms (maps and music for example) at a glance.

You control the display not by touching the screen (it's kind of a long reach anyway) but by a special rectangular joystick. Lean your arm naturally on the pad behind it and you can make small movements and bounce the cursor around on the screen. It becomes easier with practice, but is probably, along with vocal controls, the wave of the automotive future.

Sound was magnificent with the Mark Levinson Premium Sound Audio system with it's 17 speakers and 835 watts of power. You hate to leave the car when you get to your destination.

My car had the "F Sport" package, which added a host of exciting features, including a retuned suspension with firmer springs, an adaptive variable damping system, thicker anti-roll bars, a variable gear ratio steering system, bushing changes, and larger front brakes with high friction brake pads. There's plenty of F Sport identity inside and out to flaunt the $5,690 package, including some stunning 19-inch wheels. You can order the Lexus Dynamic Handling Package with this if you want--my tester had it. 

With all the extras on top of its $46,900 base price, my tester came in at $59,349. But what an experience.