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.