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.