Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Scion FR-S Cranks Up the Sportiness!

I've eagerly awaited the arrival of the Scion FR-S. Jointly developed with Subaru, it offers both companies buyers a real, affordable sports coupe in sales volumes that may actually be profitable.

I spent a fun week with a Hot Lava orange model with a six-speed manual transmission. This car delivers the goods, with taut handling, a short-throw transmission with the metal-on-metal precision of a Miata, and the low-slung, quick feeling you want in a car built for driving pleasure.

FR-S stands for Front-engine, Rear-wheel drive, Sport. I still am not a big fan of acronymic car names, especially new ones. The Subaru is called the BRZ. I have no idea what that stands for. In my opinion, this is a car that just screams to be called a Toyota Celica, but Toyota is giving this to Scion as a "halo car." The brand needs more fresh products, too.

There are Toyota historical references. The company directs us back to the beloved "hachi-roku" (8-6 in Japanese) AE86 Corolla, which offered sparkling performance at a reasonable price point. They even installed a surprisingly weighty-looking "86" chrome badge on the front fenders that combines the "hachi-roku" with a horizontal piston, indicating the flat, horizontally-opposed engine (a Subaru specialty). This is the first use of this type of engine in a front engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration.

Although Subaru was the main engine developer, Toyota added its special touch. Their D-4S injection system incorporates both direct and port injection for each cylinder, one injecting fuel directly into the combustion chamber, the other a port injector located above the intake valves. Both cars share this technology, and it means that they get 200 horsepower and 151 lb.-ft. of torque from just 2.0 liters of displacement, without a turbocharger. However, like turbo models, the engine uses premium fuel, which at last report from my local 76 station (not related to 86) was running a sobering $4.41 a gallon. I got 26.9 mpg, and the EPA awards the car 22 City, 30 Highway, and 25 Average.

I took the car on my normal errands, but also swung by Palomares Road, a slithering stretch of north-south two-lane not too far from home. As I expected, the FR-S stayed stable in various radius turns, leaped forward in the short sections of straightaway, the steering was responsive and in the narrow sport seats, it was all grins for me. I kept it in second and third gear the whole time, and didn't need to hit anywhere near triple digits to have a blast. 

FR-S inspired by Toyota 2000GT (left)
The car looks fierce, with sharp, eagle-eye headlamp clusters, lots of creases and character lines, and a ready-to-pounce look that suits a car with this job to do. The press notes say the profile is inspired by the Toyota 2000GT, a fine and rare car indeed. The Subaru version has a somewhat different face but is mainly distinguished by offering a few things the Scion doesn't, such as automatic climate control and a rear spoiler.

 The interior is appropriately proportioned, and, as a Scion, isn't lavish. The "turned plastic" dash panel looked cheap, but the overall presentation felt strong and fairly upscale. The leather shifter and steering wheel (which tilts and telescopes) make the proper reference to the car's classic British inspirations. The pistol-grip door pull and armrest felt just right when I wasn't busy steering and shifting. The dash cover looks "melted" over the speaker grilles -- a cute touch.

The FR-S comes standard with an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD/USB 300-watt Pioneer audio system. Standard features also include HD Radio™ technology and Bluetooth® connectivity. I was able to set up my phone and plug in my iPod with no problem.

You really do sit low in this car, and it's hard to drop down into the seat and spring up quickly when you exit if you're not in the blush of youth. I also felt the seatbelt touching my neck, and there is no way to adjust it--the strap it ran through on the seat made no difference. Once you're in place, though, it's cozy and not too rough on the old posterior.

There's a vestigial back seat in the car, distinguishing it from a Miata, but it's best to flip it down and use its flat surface to carry stuff. This is a trunked coupe--not a hatchback.

Pricing starts at $24,930 for the six-speed manual and $26,030 for the automatic. That puts it at the top of the Scion hierarchy, where a halo car belongs. Despite its legitimate chops as a sports coupe, it seems a bit off-target from the basic cars on the original Scion mission--but I doubt if there is any complaining from car shoppers or Toyota and Subaru dealers.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Steampunk Cinderella Sticks to the Story

The shoe fits!
Everyone knows the story of Cinderella. When her father remarries all seems well, but when he dies, the cruel stepmother pushes forward her two daughters and Cinderella becomes their servant. Enter prince, fairy godmother, ball, wedding, and happily ever after.

This favorite story was put to music in 1957 in a fine Rogers & Hammerstein version written for television. This beautiful production and music are still performed today. Last night, I saw a Steampunk version that reliably delivered the tale--with a very different look and feel.

Steampunk originated in the 1980s and 1990s, incorporating elements of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and speculative fiction. Just think of a steam-powered computer. Lots of dials and watch gears. You see a lot of it at Comic-Con. What it means, on the set, is that folks were dressed in jackets, boots, goggles, strange hair and odd colors -- nothing you'd expect. Cinderella's costume was very plain and simple, but when it was transformed (surprisingly instantly) for the ball, Steampunk was forgotten and gorgeous and blue appeared before our eyes. Artistic Director/Costume Designer Andrea Gorham did a sensational job.

This is community theatre, but it is very well arranged and performed. Several actors stand out. Of course, Cinderella herself, the slim and beautiful Catherine Willamson, was able to move from the poor and put-down house servant to belle of the ball with ease. She is given solo songs, such as In My Own Little Corner, her lament early in the production, and she sings along with Prince Christopher, played by Matt Ono, later on. The ensemble singing was especially strong, and Williamson's sweet and powerful voice carries over everyone.

Prince and Cinderella falling in love.
Another remarkable role was the very non-traditional Fairy Godmother, sung by the stunning Kristina Stasi. Tall and dramatic in her Steampunk regalia, she strutted the stage after making her grand entrance from the top of the gear-laden stage. Part of the non-traditional feel here was how she didn't just wave a wand and set up Cinderella for the ball--she told Cinderella that wishing wasn't enough--it's what you did with it that mattered! It was all about empowerment. Then she waved her arms, lights flashed, and an incredible pumpkin coach rolled in, stage right (great work, stage designers!).

This is a romantic story, but there was plenty of comedy, thanks to Cinderella's mean stepmother and her two pathetic daughters. Stepmother, played in a Cruella De Vil style by Ali Lane, had some funny asides and she was wondrously jaguar-like in her hanging on poor Lionel, the Prince's steward.

Lionel, played by veteran Kevin Foley, had the pivotal support role of announcing the Prince's ball at the beginning, counseling the Prince throughout, avoiding Stepmom during the ball, and helping the Prince find the true princess by carrying the glass slipper (not real glass in this production, of course). Foley did a great job as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Curtain Call production of A Christmas Carol last December.

Those clumsy and unpretty stepsisters made the audience laugh. Diminutive, squirrely Joy (Alice Beittel) was rubber limbed and wooden headed, giggling hysterically and flopping down like a rag doll. Her sister, Grace (Kate Offer), resembled a linebacker and charged up on the poor prince like a force of nature. The three step-women's attempts to place Cinderella's shoe on their oversized feet were hilarious, and set up the scene nicely for the dramatic moment when the shoe fits perfectly on Cinderella.

Stepsisters Grace and Joy had the audience laughing.

The staging stayed mostly with the main layout with its gears and 19th-century colors and angles, but there were times when the action moved offstage. For example, the prince, spotlighted, actually attempted to fit the glass slipper to a few women in the audience before visiting Cinderella.

The music was fine and appropriate throughout. I noticed there was no room for an upright bassist to stand in the pit, and that an electric one was provided (intentionally) by Music and Vocal Director Jedediah Da Roza. Da Roza took the Steampunk motif seriously. Replacing the bass was just one of the things he did. He changed which instruments played the parts, including adding keyboards, electric guitar and harpsichord. However, he left all the original and beloved Richard Rogers notes intact except for one spot. He ended "In My Little Corner" in a minor instead of a major key.

The ensemble dancers moved in a mechanical, Steampunk way at times, and when the mood required it, flowed gracefully. If this were a movie, I'd flip back and watch it again, because so much was happening at once and the richness of the costumes was somewhat dazzling to take it all in in one pass.

Curtain Call Performing Arts has brought Broadway style theater to the greater San Francisco Bay Area for four years.Their Gift of Broadway program has provided nearly 8,000 local K-8 grade school children with the chance to see live theater free.

The show runs through August 31st, with matinees on August 25 and 26. All shows will be performed at the Castro Valley Center for the Arts at the Castro Valley High School Campus on Redwood Road. Visit or call the box office at 510-889-8961 for more information.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bassist Bob Babbitt - Bye Bye

Even though James Jamerson played the lion's share of bass parts for the Motown hits, Bob Babbitt has his time too. Reading his obit in Bass Player magazine tonight, I see that he appeared on more than 200 hit singles and more than 25 gold records.

Great songs, like Cool Jerk, by the Capitols. Smokey Robinson's Tears of a Clown. How about Stevie Wonder's Signed, Sealed Delivered? Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Knight? Great stuff.

Sometimes, it's these unsung but wonderful studio musicians that make life great for radio listeners like me. Bob got some notoriety when the Funk Brothers (the Motown studio musicians' unofficial name) were featured in the 2002 documentary film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. I saw Bob all the time in ads in Bass Player, too.

Bob died on July 17th of complications of brain cancer, which he fought as long as he could. He was (only) 74.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

New Dodge Dart Arrives -- with a Great Ad

The new Dodge Dart is here, and however good the car may prove to be--or successful--it has great advertising putting the word out. That link in the last sentence takes you to a story on the agency that crafted it--and gives you direct access to view the 90-second spot for yourself.

You'll want to run it a couple of times. From the "American" on the pencil to the "tweak, tweak, tweak" it's a grabber.

My wife called me in to look at the new ad and it's funny, and makes a point. This is a car that's been carefully planned, styled, and has all the right stuff. And this is one very important vehicle for Chrysler. It's the first Chrysler, Dodge, Ram or Jeep product to use an Italian platform, which means it's the real beginning of the new Chrysler Corporation. It competes in the hot compact sedan segment against everything from the Ford Focus to the Chevy Cruze to the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. From here on, more Fiat and Alfa-Romeo platforms will be under cars you get at Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Ram/SRT dealerships.

I drove a Dart recently for a few minutes and it seemed competitive. I'll have to spend a week with one soon to get the whole story, but you can cruise down to your local dealershop now. Do it. And watch the ad.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Nissan Xterra is a Real Truck

In a world of crossover vehicles that look like SUVs but are really big cars, the Nissan Xterra isn't shy about being a truck. Based on the same platform as the company's Titan and Frontier pickups, it's long on utility and short on coddling. That doesn't mean it's uncomfortable to live with--not at all--but its mission in life is to haul you and your stuff to your next adventure.

The Xterra is named after an offroad triathlon race that Nissan was sponsoring at the time the vehicle was introduced in 2000. Right out of the box (no pun intended) it won Motor Trend's Sport Utility of the Year--and won again in 2006 with the second generation. This is only the second major release of the truck so far.

You can get an Xterra in the base X, midrange S or top-level PRO-4X model. I had the PRO-4X, in one of two new colors for 2012--Metallic Blue. No problem finding it in the parking lot--bright colored, 6-foot-3 and more than two tons of fun.

The Xterra comes with a roof rack, and in PRO-4X guise, has roof-mounted off-road lights and a gear basket. Since Xterra day one, this latter option has provided the perfect spot for those muddy clothes and boots from a day of exploring. If you do mess up the car, in S and PRO-4X versions you have the Easy-Clean Cargo Area surface. There are also ten utility hooks in the cargo area to hold your bike or other gear firmly in place.

I am not an adventure seeker, but the Xterra does find its way around town and on the freeway with no problem. The only issue here may be that the 4.0-liter V6's 261 horsepower and 281 lb.-ft. of torque are not really needed for picking up your dry cleaning or going to the train station. I averaged just 14.8 miles per gallon, while EPA numbers are 15 City, 20 Highway (average 17). I spent more time in town this week, as I was commuting by train to my work.

All Xterras have the same V6, but you can get it with a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission (only automatic in the base car). You also have the option of two-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive.

Pricing varies from the $26,035 for the base, two-wheel-drive X to the PRO-4X automatic, like my tester, at $32,245. Both prices include $825 for shipping. There are a few extra pieces you can add at the factory or port of delivery, including a handy iPod interface, special PRO-4X floor mats (worth the $120) and for the PRO-4X only, leather seats (although why you'd really need them is a good question).

Despite its poor fuel economy and parking challenges, I liked the rugged feel of the Xterra, and I'm sure it would be perfect for someone--just not me. It's the real deal for outdoor activities.