Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Friend Lowell is Gone

I knew it was coming, but when Lowell Moulton died yesterday, I let out a big sigh and didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t long ago that we were playing music together in the congeniality of the Odd Fellows monthly blues jams.

We sometimes say, when someone dies, that they are finally at peace. In his brave, Zen-minded way, Lowell faced the end of his life with curiosity and patience, and was at peace before he died. He tried every medical treatment available, but when none would work, he courageously accepted his fatal condition and lived his remaining days with full consciousness. I can only hope that if my final days are spent with a terrible illness, that I can have his attitude.

I met Lowell in 2007, when he took over my bass slot in the Beatles tribute band, Fab Fever. With his high musical competence, fine ear, and ready smile, he always added so much to the music he performed. Although the iteration of Fab Fever containing Lowell didn’t last long, I got to play with him later during jam sessions, where he proved to be a capable blues lead guitar player. His Herd of Cats band showed his Jazz chops, too.

As in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you can measure the kind of life you’ve lived by the number and quality of friends you have at the end. By this calculation, Lowell was the richest man in town. As his illness progressed, many stepped forward to help him with his daily living, including meals, trips to appointments, yard clearing, and professional medical care. Using MealTrain, an online program that works like a gift registry, you could see what Lowell needed and sign up to provide it. Meal Train made sure that Lowell retained his independence at home but got adequate nutrition and could see his doctors. And, it kept the flow of visitors right for his schedule.

I had the privilege of preparing and bringing Lowell dinner one night, and we played some music together. On another occasion, I drove him to San Francisco for a medical appointment. I also was able to get in one last phone call a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t know it would be the last time we spoke, but it ended with “I love you, Lowell.”

Because I have known that he was leaving us, I’ve thought about Lowell a lot, and mourned him in advance, even before his actual death yesterday. Now, I feel emptiness. When someone dies suddenly, it’s a shock, and it takes a while to absorb the news. But when your friend or family member declines, you can carry the knowledge of their imminent departure with you every day, and begin missing them before they’re gone. I feel like I will carry Lowell in my heart forever.

I have set his photo on my iPhone lock screen for the last couple of weeks. Whenever I open the phone to text or make a call, I see him standing on the stage at the Hayward Plunge, playing a blues solo in front of his friends. It was his final appearance in this summer music program. I also have a set of photos of him playing with Herd of Cats, at the Sycamore 129 Odd Fellows Lodge in Hayward. I’ll treasure them.

I’ve lost three people this year—one suddenly, but two after debilitating illnesses. The sudden loss, my cousin Tom, was a shock, out of nowhere. Because I didn’t know him well, it had little impact on my daily life. My real concern was for his parents, my aunt and uncle, who will feel this great loss for the rest of their lives.

For the two other losses, Barbara Garber in July and Lowell yesterday, I had time to say goodbye over time. Barbara, a feisty, red-headed standup comedian, was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – a few years ago and, despite gradually losing her speech and mobility, she continued to post hysterically funny jokes and comments on Facebook until very shortly before she died. Barbara found humor in a fatal disease! She stared ALS in the eye and told it that it couldn’t silence her—even when she couldn’t speak.

As a memorial, several comedian friends read some of Barbara’s Facebook posts out loud to an audience at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. Even without Barbara’s unique voice and laugh, the jokes still had it. At Barbara’s “Celebration of Life” in August, the church was filled with the many people whom she had touched. They stood up, one after the other, to talk about Barbara. There were plenty of tears but lots of laughs, too.

Lowell was not a comedian, but he had a great sense of humor, and also a bright, positive view of life. He and I attended a Gordon Lightfoot concert together a couple of years ago and he was fun to hang with—and we enjoyed a great health food restaurant before the show. I treasure that time now—in the days when he was strong and healthy. But Lowell was always that way, until pancreatic cancer struck him down at a youthful 64 years old.

Barbara and Lowell didn’t do anything to deserve the way they were taken from us. The great story is how they both bravely and strongly remained true to themselves until the end. If there was any anger or bitterness, they kept it private. If you have to go, you can die with dignity.

I am bereft, but also inspired by their lives and their deaths.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cinderella on Steroids - La Cenerentola, in Italian

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella. She’s the virtuous, but abused, stepsister whose virtue is eventually rewarded when she meets and marries the prince. But you probably have never seen it as an opera, in Italian. You really should.

Last night, I enjoyed La Cenerentola, composed by Gioachino Rossini, at the California Conservatory Theater in San Leandro, California. The 67-seat performance space guarantees intimacy, as it has for the other fine productions I’ve seen there. I had literally front-row center seats, too, so I was not only looking up at the actors/singers, but one time one of the stepsister’s hands brushed again my knee during a scene played in front of the stage.

You may not think of yourself as an opera enthusiast, and many people are put off by the intense performance of these highly trained singers. A show like this could change your opinion. The entire performance was sung in Italian, but I found that I forgot about the words, thanks to some supertitles (which gave the gist of the action) and the emotion communicated by the singers’ physical presence and voices.

This production was presented with the sincerity the story requires but also was filled with humor. The costumes, for example, were modern, but in the first scene, the two stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, appear in their garish, tightly-stretched track suits, “getting in shape” for an expected appearance by the prince, who has to take a bride. And their clothing never gets more tasteful than that, as these two play comic buffoons through the whole show—while still maintaining the high standards of professional opera.

This production, which runs for only a single Friday through Sunday, December 13-15, 2013, is put on by Opera on Tap (OOT), a non-profit organization whose mission is to make opera a real choice for people who may have never considered going to experience one. If you can appreciate a dramatic pop singer, how about a whole cast of them? OOT brings opera to accessible neighborhood venues, at reasonable prices, to expose more people to this classical style in an informal way. Nobody in the audience was wearing jewels, and the sets were quite simple—the kind you’d see in a community playhouse. But it worked beautifully. Visit their website for more information.

Part of this effort includes two matinees on Saturday and Sunday, abridged for children, with a different cast. Next time, I’m planning on attending one of those too to see how they do it.

The music was supported—you might even say driven—by the rousing performance of the six-member chamber orchestra, directed by Michael Anthony Schuler. At stage right, facing away from the actors in their own virtual “pit,” sat a string quartet plus bass and piano. They provided a stirring platform for the voices. Occasionally, I looked over to watch Schuler directing the musicians as he followed and conveyed the stage action, and the musicians focused intensely on their music—and each other.

It’s really hard to single out one particular vocal performance because I thought they were universally excellent. I am not an expert on opera, so I had no way to evaluate the technique. I do see from the program that all of the performers studied under expert teachers to perfect their art, and some have long performance histories.

Jessica Winn, as Cenerentola, is a powerful mezzo-soprano, and managed to convey, in her jeans and headscarf, the downtrodden and miserable house servant who is then transformed into the beautiful future princess and queen. It’s a comic touch in a sad situation when as Cenerentola, she pulls out a pack of cigarettes from her jeans pocket.

Cenerentola’s stepsisters, played by Krista Wigle and Jamie McDonald, kept the tension high with their overreaction to their various disappointments and their pervasive sibling rivalry. It was hard to be sympathetic to these characters—they are meant to be “mean” -- but the singers’ performances were powerful.

The male characters were complicated by a classic switch. Prince Ramiro, played by Jonathan Smucker, spent more than half of the play disguised as his squire/valet, Dandini (Daniel Cameron) who has to act as a prince should. This device, of course, is to ferret out how the women will really treat people, and it works. It also gives the actors a chance to play two parts, essentially. As the pretend valet, Smucker almost seems like he’s watching a science experiment, from the side holding his chin and observing. When he takes back his identity again, he not only gains his suit jacket and royal red sash, but doffs the glasses he’s worn—and they go onto Dandini, who suddenly seems the servant again, while the Prince becomes royal.

Andrew J. Chung, as Don Magnifico, is a powerful singer and he fills the stage, even with he’s out there alone. His role is not as a good guy—he craves power and attention, and is, after all, the father of those two obnoxious daughters—but what a performance!

Alidoro, the tutor, has a special role as the catalyst and advisor, who links the scenes and action. Kenneth Keel serves ably in this capacity. He also appears early in the show as a homeless beggar with a huge gray beard with a black mustache. In this scene we observe Cenerentola’s compassion versus the contempt Alidoro receives from the stepsisters. This, of course, leads the prince to seek her out, and there’s our story.

The program contains a five-page cartoon, explaining the story. Amusing in itself, it also helps provide the familiarity you want to have when you attend an opera, so you can concentrate on the exquisite beauty of the performance.

With one short intermission, this evening kept my attention and enthusiasm, and the passion shown in the singing and instrumental performances at times had me in tears. I look forward to seeing future operas by this company, and you should plan to go, too. Curtain Call Performing Arts is the theatre company in residence at The California Conservatory Theater. These opera performances by OOT fit perfectly into Curtain Call's vision of bringing fine art performances to everyone.

Coming for a weekend in July, 2014 – Carmen!

California Conservatory Theater
999 E. 14th Street
San Leandro, CA  94577

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Honda Fit EV - The Agony and the Ecstasy of Electric Motoring

My Fit EV fills up at the Blink Network charging station.
The Honda Fit EV is a great example of everything that’s wonderful — and terrible — about living with an electric car. I just spent a week with a Reflection Blue FIT EV and it took me on a real adventure.

Let’s start with the upsides first. Nobody can argue that electric cars aren’t cleaner than gasoline burners. Of course, how much cleaner depends on how the electricity that you use is generated (coal-fired plant? Hydro-electric dam? Nuclear power plant?). But you aren’t burning anything in the car itself — there isn’t even a tailpipe.

The EPA’s green ratings for the Fit EV are a perfect 10 for Smog and Greenhouse Gas. The window sticker says you’ll save $9,100 in fuel costs over five years compared to the average new vehicle.

Electric motors are quiet and smooth. My tester made a little high-pitched whine when it gained momentum, but otherwise all I heard, even at freeway speeds, was a little hum from the tires and a very minimal bit of wind noise. Being a Honda, the car was well built and rattle- and buzz-free.

The price of electricity is significantly less than gasoline, especially if you generate it from your own rooftop solar panels. I don’t have any yet, but my research showed that to go 30 miles in a gas version of the Fit would take one gallon of gas at $4.00; an Electric fit would use about $1.00 worth of electricity.

How about the negatives? At this point, the biggest problem with electric cars, including the Fit, is range. Imagine if you had to put gas into your car’s tank three gallons at a time. With a 73-mile range like the Fit, you need a daily charge, if not twice a day. Charging at home in reasonable time means installing a 220-volt charger in your garage. Otherwise, at 110 volts, it could take longer to fill an empty battery than overnight. A 220-volt public charger takes about four hours.

Another range-related issue is usage. If you plan to drive your EV only for commuting, and your daily mileage fits comfortably within the car’s range, then you can charge it up at night and the cycle works. However, if you want to come home after work and then take your car out again, you may not be able to do it. Also, forget those 150-mile round trips to visit the grandkids or long vacation excursions. In these cases, you’d better take the other (gas) car.

Another problem is price. The Fit EV drives very nicely, is well finished, and comes pretty well equipped, but it’s still based on the Fit, which is Honda’s cheapest car. You can buy the basic gas-powered Fit starting at $16,215, while the price of my test car was $37,415! And despite their wildly different drivetrains, the two versions look nearly identical, except for a chrome smile up front and EV badges on the electric.

Nissan’s, the pioneer in the mainstream EV market, created a new model — the Leaf — to avoid this kind of comparison between basic gas model and upscale electric. Honda, along with Ford, Fiat, and Chevrolet, is using available platforms — a cost-saving move but one that may be harder to sell to the public.

There are significant federal and state rebates that can take up to $10,000 off the price of an EV, but it still costs a lot more than a gas-powered model. Good leasing deals are out there. Currently, you can lease a Fit EV for three years at $259 a month, although availability is very limited.

Of course, the Tesla Model S is another case entirely. It’s very expensive, starting at $71,070, but the range is not an issue, at 208 or 265 miles, depending on model. Most of us, though, will have to opt for the more ordinary EVs.

The challenge of driving an EV is learning how to live carefully on your meager energy budget. The Fit’s instrument panel has a Power/Charge gauge on the left that shows you if you’re using electricity or generating it and on the right is a full/empty gauge for the battery.

There is also a digital estimated range display front and center. You can make this figure larger or smaller depending on whether you choose Econ, Normal, or Sport mode on the left side of the steering column. With, Econ, the 100% full range is 73 miles. Pushing the Normal button drops that to 62, and Sport drops further to 56. These are approximations, and they can vary tremendously depending on how you drive.

Econ is the most frugal setting, but during the cold snap of my test week, I found that it reduced the heater function to nearly nothing. Switching to Normal restores normal climate function, and also makes the car much quicker off the line when you press the accelerator. Sport mode gives another boost to acceleration, but seems unnecessary otherwise.

My real adventure and educational experience was in getting the car charged up. My first day, I was surprised to drive my 30 miles to work and see the range drop from 59 to just 48. I had recovered a lot of the electricity because I was in terrible stop-and-go traffic. Secret: EVs do exceptionally well in these conditions, because speeds are low and there is plenty of opportunity to recharge the battery with regenerative braking.

With this success, I figured I was safe to take the trip back without a recharge. However, by the time I got close to home that Tuesday evening, the instruments were displaying a worrisome 11-mile range and a Low Battery warning light came on as I approached my house.

To avoid stress, on Wednesday, I went looking for a charging station near my office. I had used one before that was a 20-minute walk away, but it was a Blink Network site and I only had a ChargePoint card from the press fleet. So, I went to the nearest ChargePoint station — more than a mile away — and found that I couldn’t use it. It was on a major software company’s campus, and it was reserved.

However, I made a call to ChargePoint and was able to get connected — but I had to use the personal ChargePoint account I had set up months ago. I enjoyed a vigorous 35-minute walk back to the office, but I’d hate to have to do that every day. I got a ride to pick up the car later.

The following day, I decided to try using the ChargePoint chargers right across the street from my office. Although they were in front of a well-known video rental company, I thought that maybe the wizards at ChargePoint could open them up for me the way they had on Wednesday. The polite woman on the other side of the line did her best, but it was a no go. I then decided to try the Blink Network station again, hoping for a miracle.

I got my miracle. When I called Blink, Dustin told me that they have a Guest User plan. So, in five minutes, my hungry Fit was charging up. One more day was taken care of, and I got my nice 20-minute walk back to work.

I was beginning to feel like I had it together. I was much more relaxed having the security of a full charge morning and night. So, I drove in Normal instead of Econ mode and enjoyed the warmth and responsiveness that the Fit offers. That’s when I realized how much I enjoyed the car. The Fit is absolutely stable and feels light and taut, although my driving was not on exciting roads. The motor’s torque pulls you forward nicely, and the expansive glass greenhouse and long dash make it feel spacious. The silvery panels and light gray plastic (none of it padded) helped, too. I was able to play the audio system without any apparent impact on my electricity budget.

Charge companies keep in touch with you. I received text messages from ChargePoint telling me when the car was full — and also when I removed the charger from the car (in case it was someone else!). Blink Network sent me emails with the same contents. After my experience with them, I signed up for a free membership, so I’ll be ready when the next electric test car comes along.

The bottom line is, if you are willing to put up with the obvious issues of range and price, an EV may be for you — and the Honda is nice to drive and handy to use, with its hatchback. If I owned one, I would be sure there was a charger at my workplace and install one in my garage. I would also be sure to have a reliable second car that burns petrol available for longer trips.

There are other options. Besides the several EVs on the market, there are plug-in hybrids, which allow you limited all-electric driving and then switch to efficient hybrid operation. The Toyota Prius Plug-In and Ford C-Max Energi are good examples. Another choice is the Chevrolet Volt, which is an electric car with a built-in gasoline engine that’s used only as a generator to charge the battery for extended range.

These cars eliminate the range issues, but are still more expensive than comparable gasoline vehicles. They are even more expensive than their regular hybrid versions. And, they still use some gas.

The electric-only range for plug-in hybrids varies from about 13 miles for the Prius to 21 for the C-Max and 38 for the Volt. These models, like the current EVs and standard hybrids, are all interim steps that will eventually lead to what we really want — electric vehicles with a useful range, quick and convenient charging, and an affordable price.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

500L - More Fiat for your Family

Big 500L looms behind 500
After a long absence, Fiat returned to our shores a couple of years ago with the cute little 500. About the size of a MINI Cooper hardtop, the pint-size retro two-door hatchback is cute and fun to drive, and has proven economical and reliable so far.

Fiat dealers complained that they had only one car to sell, despite offering different versions. What the revived brand needed was something bigger that still retained much of the appeal of the 500.

Well, for 2014, the new 500L offers four doors (plus the handy hatchback) and lots of room inside. It’s 27 inches longer and six inches taller than the regular 500 and contains 42 percent more space.
The 500L uses the 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower turbocharged engine from the sporty Abarth model of the 500. With its 184 lb.-ft. of torque, it pulls the 3,254-pound 500L down the road well, if not racily. The EPA awards the car with 24 City, 33 Highway, 27 Combined mileage figures; I averaged 24.5 mpg. The Green Vehicle scores are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas.

My Blanco (white) sample with black interior was a Lounge model — the top of the line. Lounges come only with Fiat's twin-clutch automatic transmission, so if you want a manual, you'll have to pick the Pop or Easy model. The Pop is the entry 500L, while the Easy adds popular favorites, such as 16-inch alloy wheels, leather steering wheel and shift knob, and the option of the automatic gearbox. The Trekking iteration is geared for sportier living, with graphite (gray) body accents, upgraded 17-inch alloy wheels, and a unique interior color scheme.

As I drove around I was surprised that nobody was staring at me. Did they think it was a regular 500? Couldn't they tell it was much bigger? Maybe drivers are just jaded.

The 500L has unusual windshield pillars. These pillars have become tree trunks in recent cars to support the safety cages that protect you. The 500L splits them, with a generous slice of window in between, so you see more pillars but it ends up being quite panoramic and with the generous headroom, you feel like you're in a bigger car.

My car had an optional sunroof that took up nearly the entire top. The front section slides open for fresh air. It's like being on the observation car of the Santa Fe Super Chief. The dash features two gloveboxes, and is covered in what looked like Naugahyde. One hopes this covering will survive years of sun and not crack, like it did in cars of yore. The steering wheel, in leather, features a clever "squared circle" theme, accentuated by the shape of the leather folds and stitching. The presence of leather upgrades the interior significantly.

The automatic climate control system kept the car colder than I'd prefer, even when I set it up to 74 or 75 degrees. I also noticed a squeak — something I am not used to hearing. I don't know if the fact that the car is assembled in Kragujevac, Serbia means anything for quality control.

The small, but sharply rendered screen at center dash features the beautiful graphics that have proliferated across Chrysler/Fiat models. I was able to view and set audio, climate, and other information easily. The 500L has one of my favorites — steering wheel audio controls mounted on the back of the steering wheel spokes, so you can make adjustments in volume, media type and station/track selection without looking away from the road or moving your hands from the wheel.

The audio system, with six optional Beats Audio premium speakers plus subwoofer, pounded out some of the better sound I've heard in a car lately. The Bluetooth phone connection failed a couple of times, but was easy enough to hook up.

The rear cargo floor panel lifts and slides into a higher slot to make the load floor flat when you have the rear seats folded down. The lightweight cargo area cover, however, is balky and made dark marks on the interior surfaces when I attempted to position it.

Pricing starts at just $19,900 for the Pop, including shipping. The Easy begins at $20,995, the Trekking at $21,995, and the Lounge sits at the top at $24,995.

I thought that this car was a lot like a MINI Countryman in proportions and purpose, and it’s just slightly bigger than the big MINI. But you would need to drive both to decide if you’re a MINI maniac or a Fiat fanatic.

Now, with the 500L, you can enjoy fresh Italian styling and performance and bring along your friends and their gear, too. And, you’ll be a member of an exclusive club until these new cars proliferate.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Toyota RAV4 - First and Latest Compact SUV

The Toyota RAV4 seems to be in the perfect spot in the market. It's small enough to be agile, fun, and go anywhere, but large enough for a family of 5 and their gear. Over time, small crossovers have become more like tall cars, taking on much of the duties of midsize station wagons from years past.

The original compact crossover SUV showing up in 1995, it debuted its fourth iteration for 2013, heavily redone, but still hitting the mark.

Like all brands, Toyota wants to spread its current design scheme around, and this new RAV4 gets the narrow upper grille with large mouth behind it, sculpted flanks, and high, chiseled taillamps in back. There's a roof spoiler that extends the roof line jauntily, and presumably moves the air over the car more efficiently. 

There is one engine in today's RAV4 a 2.5-liter inline four putting out 176 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque. In the past, you could pick up the base RAV4 with a do-it-yourself shifter, but those days are gone. All models, from LE to XLE to Limited, get a six-speed automatic. As you'd expect, it was painless, and helped deliver an OK but hardly spectacular 23.1 miles per gallon. The EPA gives the car a 25 overall, with 22 City and 29 Highway. Smog is rated at 5, with Greenhouse gas at 6, per the EPA.

Choose front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The AWD system is light and doesn't impact the weight as much as some systems. My AWD tester came in at 3585 lb., only 120 lbs. heavier than the FWD model.

SUVs came from pickup trucks, which were in themselves kind of rugged but spartan years ago. Of course, trucks are quite luxurious now, and SUVs, whether large or not so large, are much more comfortable today than you might have even imagined years ago. My XLE had a surprisingly carlike dash, for example, with a softly padded lower section, French stitching, handsome instruments with Clear Blue lighting, and other amenities. It contains a six-inch color touch screen, which is a little small, but still usable. I found the map graphics to be a little toy-like and hard to view in traffic, but the audio was fine, as was the Bluetooth phone connection.

Like so many Toyotas today, the RAV4 comes with a three-way setting for ECO, Sport and Normal. Eco is slower to react, but burns less fuel. Sport mode tightens up the steering and suspension. Normal is fine for everything.

This is a strong little car but is not designed, with all-wheel drive, for driving the Rubicon with the Jeep Wranglers. Luckily, no-one plans to do that with these cars. The all-wheel drive is a safety feature in rain, gravel or snow, none of which imposed themselves on yours truly in the early autumn of Northern California.

There isn't a stripped RAV4 anymore, but it's worth picking up the Limited model. My Barcelona Red Metallic tester was the popular midrange XLE, which shares the dual-zone climate control and power moonroof with the Limited, but the Limited has the extra goodies. Outside, there are 18-inch alloys instead of 17-inchers. There's a power liftgate (the sideways opening door is gone in this generation). You get seat heaters, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and premium audio in the Limited.

Pricing starts with the FWD LE model, at $24,145. Step up to the Limited and you're looking at $29,255. Neatly splitting the difference is the XLE, at $26,535 with all-wheel drive. My tester came to $27,565 thanks to the fancy audio system.

I've already seen lots of new RAV4s out on the road. It's an easy choice for a buyer to make, despite the wealth of competition these days. With its updated styling, increased power and real comfort inside, it will likely stay that way.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Nissan JUKE NISMO - Affordable Little Piece of the Racetrack

The Nissan JUKE is a strange little animal. It's a sporty compact crossover, with wheels at the corners and a high window line. Its face is not pretty. But it's practical, seating four and carrying nearly 36 cubic feet of gear when the seats fold flat.

NISMO stands for NISsan MOtorsports (just like BEVMO stands for Beverages & More). For nearly 50 years, this engineering group within Nissan has been specially tuning cars for racing, including the GT-R sports car for Japan's Super GT series. By bring the special look and tuning of NISMO vehicles to the JUKE, it's now possible for car enthusiasts of modest means (young) to have fun out on the streets without breaking the bank.

The JUKE NISMO contains nearly 100 changed parts compared to the standard car. Notably, the body wears aerodynamic enhancements, including adjustments to the front fascia and grille and sweeping side skirts. The tail wears a body-colored liftgate spoiler and fascia diffuser. Red is applied strategically to make an impact--it's even in the O of NISMO.

The lightweight alloy wheels on the JUKE NISMO are 18-inchers -- an inch larger than the standard JUKE's, and their spokes are sprayed a two-tone gray to go with the three available body colors -- black, white and silver. This is a serious racer, so no pretty shades, although the deep Sapphire Black of my test car was handsome in a manly way.

Inside, everything is geared to giving the driver an in-control feeling. The deeply bolstered, suede-covered buckets hold you in place. They feature NISMO badging embroidered into the seatbacks and red stitching. The ceiling is black, and there are soft sueded door panels, and piano black accents on the dash. The panels themselves have a round, "inflated" look, so despite the appearance of intense racing, there's a pleasant, comfortable feel sitting there. And, of course, there are more red accents, including a red section at the top of the leather and alcantara-wrapped steering wheel--a racing tradition of showing "top dead center" at a glance to busy drivers.

My tester had the Navigation Package ($1,170), which included a small-screen Nav system that I was able to confuse for a while while descending a parking lot ramp. The Rockford Fosgate ecoPUNCH premium audio had plenty of bass response, thanks to a subwoofer, but working its small screen took some care. Once I had my favorite XM and FM stations programmed in, I controlled everything from the fully-featured wheel.

NISMO is a performance-driven organization, so there are some real enhancements to the JUKE wearing the NISMO badge. The suspension, steering and transmission are adjusted for a sportier feel. In addition, the I-CON system lets you select Normal, Sport or Eco settings. Normal is fine for all driving, but Sport adjusts the steering for quicker response, firms up the road feel and with the automatic, adjusts the shift feel. I found myself in Normal most of the time and even that setting is more sporty than a standard Juke.

The JUKE NISMO carries a 1.6-liter direct injected inline four-cylinder engine under its bulging hood. It puts out 197 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque for the NISMO, The standard JUKE has 188 and 177 respectively. Direct injection is a fuel delivery technology that enhance engine performance and is becoming more common in the auto industry today, as manufacturers look for ways to maximize performance of smaller engines, so they can use them raise fuel economy.

The NISMO folks lowered the car an inch -- it's not only more hunkered-down looking but that creates a tighter fit between the wheels and wheelwells, for better aerodynamics.

JUKE NISMOs come with either front-wheel drive and a six-speed manual (like my test car) or all-wheel drive and the XTronic continuously-variable automatic.Manual shifting is more fun, in my opinion, but, as always, it's a bit more of a chore in commute traffic. The lever moves precisely so I never caught the wrong gear.

Regarding fuel economy, the manual version is rated slightly higher than the AWD with auto (probably because of the additional weight of the automatic): 25 City, 31 Highway, and 27 Combined. I averaged 28.9 mpg during my test week. That is not the highest fuel economy a compact hatchback can deliver, but the JUKE NISMO is not your ordinary little car. The EPA gives it a 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas -- a little better than average.

It's fun to take this little car around. At just under a ton and a half, it stays pretty smooth on the freeway, despite its short 99.9-inch wheelbase. It sticks nicely in the turns, and hums along with the 1.6-liter on the boil. Even nicer, it's highly practical, too, and takes in a tall upright bass with no problem, sliding easily along its flat, carpeted cargo hold. In the FWD models, there's hidden storage under the cargo area, too.

It's hard to find complaints. My wife wasn't keen on having to climb into the deeply-bolstered passenger seat. The sunvisors are short when used on the side (and don't slide). The XM Radio listings are truncated so you can't see the year of most songs on the oldies channels. That's about it, though.

Pricing for NISMO-equipped JUKEs starts at $23,780 for the FWD/manual models, and $26,080 for the AWD/automatic version. Just for comparison, the base S model JUKE (which comes only with the CVT automatic) is $19,780.

In the highly-competitive auto industry, it's essential to distinguish your products from the others -- in the right way. Nissan has some "interesting" styling, and the JUKE NISMO has the fun factor dialed up high. You don't need to spend a lot to own a little piece of the racetrack, and get nearly 30 miles per gallon as you race around your neighborhood.

Read about the standard JUKE here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Lexus ES 300h or Toyota Avalon -- Which Hybrid to Choose?

It's a well kept secret in the auto industry that many car are based on shared platforms For example, until recently, at GM, it was common for a Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Chevrolet to share what was under the slightly different sheet metal. Chrysler marketed separate Plymouth, Dodges and  Chrysler minivans. Today, even companies share, for example the recent Subaru BRZ and Toyota FR-S sports coupe collaboration.

In any case, one easy way to create a luxury car is to take a regular one and load it with extra features. The Lexus ES was one of the two original Lexus vehicles that debuted nearly a quarter century ago. It was a slightly nicer Toyota Camry. Today's sixth-generation ES is not a Camry sibling, but it does have a lot in common with Toyota's new flagship, the Avalon. I had the unusual opportunity of test driving them back-to-back, which made their differences and similarities stand out.

Lexus has earned its luxury credentials now, so my expectations were high. My Deep Sea Mica ES 300h arrived looking premium. The new grille design, known around the industry as the "spindle" look, gives the face a more aggressive appearance. This overt styling is helping to distinguish the brand, surely, putting memories of the old laid-back, restrained Lexus of yore into the dim past.

Over the last few years, Lexus has developed a look that's sleek and edgy, and now the ES floats in the center of this balance, and looks right. Without trying to sound like an advertising copywriter, it's beyond the ordinary. And that's just on the outside.

Inside, the ES is clean and subtle, with matte metallic trim, simple seams in the leather-wrapped chairs, and "wood" trim that looks thick and applied rather than integrated. It feels gracious as well as spacious. Sitting in there provides blessed isolation from other cars, sound, the road, and any unpleasantness. The steering wheel gives you wood at the top and lower sides, with leather where you grip, if you're using the proper 9 and 3 hand position.

It's all fully realized, including the two console cupholders that are both covered and out of sight until you need them. Even the way you handle information is genteel and understated. Down along the center console is a firm resting spot for your wrist, with a small joystick ahead of it. Use it to navigate the console-mounted screen. It's not a problem to seek out areas of interest, since the cursor tends to seek out and stick to different rectangles and squares on the screen. Once you get accustomed to it, it's easier than trying to reach out with an extended arm and touch a spot as you cruise along.

The hybrid version of the ES 300, the h model, shares its drivetrain with the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, despite a huge difference in styling and design. The two cars are very close in size and weight, both riding on the same 111-inch wheelbase, although the Lexus is 2.5 inches shorter nose to tail, half an inch narrower and .4 inches lower. Its luxury accommodations give it a 75-pound weight penalty. Its trunk is nearly two cubic feet smaller, too although I'm not sure why.

The real difference between these two cars may be philosophical. It certainly isn't financial. When all was said and done, these two highly comfortable, luxury-filled, premium sedans came out less than $1,000 apart. The Lexus cost $940 more. That's barely more than the shipping charge.

So, why pick one over the other? Toyota makes Corollas--the most popular car ever made. It's the car of the people--unpretentious, unspoiled, neither a slug or a rocket. Toyota makes pickup trucks. Toyota sells a lot of cars, to a lot of differenc kinds of people. Driving one says, I deserve a good car but I'm not a show-off.

Lexus has been competing with Mercedes-Benz since the day the LS full-size sedan arrived wearing the German maker's clothes. It was a Benz at a discount and a lot of people went for it, beginning the new brand that's a known quantity today.

Both of these hybrids take about 8 seconds zero to 60 with their matching hybrid powerplants. With official U.S. Government fuel economy numbers of 40 City, 39 Highway, and  39 overall, I got 37.1 miles per gallon in the Lexus. The week before, the Toyota Avalon delivered 37.9 mpg. That's close.

So, why buy a Lexus instead of a Toyota? You get to visit the Lexus dealership for service, probably a good thing. Keeps you from rubbing shoulders with those annoying owners of 20th-century hatchbacks. I don't know if service is more expensive, but I would expect it is. Surely they have finer coffee in their more richly-decorated waiting rooms, too. Neither Toyotas nor Lexi are known for needing much dealer attention, anyway.

Where the 300h goes soft and subtle, the Avalon blings. The Avalon dash features lots of plastic chrome trim, which can be challenging when the sun hits it. It's overtly styled, which gives Toyota something to get excited about, and also a way of being un Lexus like. The ride, handling, and quiet are remarkably even.

My test ES 300h came to $45,159, from a base price of $38,850. It had Blind Spot Monitoring, with Cross Traffic Alert, a worthwhile feature that it shares with, yes, the Avalon. It also had the navigation system package that upgraded the entire electronic interface. Hard to believe, but the heated front seats were an add-on--you'd think they'd be standard in a Lexus. Intuitive Parking assist helps you avoid hitting or scraping anything when you're forced to get close and personal with other drivers.

How would you choose between these two cars? Who are you trying to impress? Are you a shiny or a matte finish kind of person? How close is the Toyota or the Lexus dealership to you? Maybe you should just test both and then decide.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Toyota Avalon Hybrid - Luxury Plus High MPG

Millions of people drive Toyota Camrys, but what if you're looking for something a little more premium, but not quite a Lexus? Well, the Avalon has been around for nearly twenty years offering an alternative.

The 2013 model marks the fourth generation of Toyota's premium midsizer, and it is about as all-new as a car could be. Criticized for blandness, Toyota's designers now are seeking more evocative styling in all their products, so the new Avalon wears the corporate regalia in its entirety. The face has a slim band of chrome up top, sort of an eagle face, with a large mouth below to bring in the air needed to feed either a 3.5-liter V6 or a 2.5-liter 4 for the Hybrid model. The sides wear a definite ridge that grows out of the extended headlamp pods and proceeds all the way back to meet the slim taillamps. Nothing is flat or boring or subtle here. It's arguably the best looking Avalon ever.

Inside, you can't help but notice the significant serving of chrome-looking plastic that surrounds the dash screens. Compared to Lexus models, this is almost gaudy, but I'll have to admit that it grew on me during the week-long test of my Magnetic Gray Metallic test car, with its black interior. Almond and gray are alternative interior shades that are meant to evoke different moods (sounds a little like Audi).

Something new about this Avalon is the nearly button-free interior. That means that most functions on the center console are touch-sensitive spots rather than moving plastic rectangles or circles. I first noticed this trend in the Chevrolet Volt and  it's proliferating. It makes interacting with the car more like using a cell phone. As long as you tap the right spot, you're good. You still get good old-fashioned knobs for volume and tuning the sound system, although once you're used to the steering wheel controls you rarely use them.

You can pick the regular Avalon in four levels, or, to save significantly on fuel, the Hybrid. It comes in three levels: XLE Premium, XLE Touring, and Limited. My Hybrid Limited tester had everything a person could want, from a powerful JBL audio system to three-zone climate control (rear passengers can choose their own settings), to the premium leather seating that was soft in a good way and felt like an old Mercedes--plush but broken-in.

The real deal with hybrids is how they integrate a smaller engine with an electric motor. In this case, Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system combines an Atkinson Cycle 156-horsepower four-cylinder engine with the motor to generate 200 total horsepower. The Atkinson Cycle postpones closure of the engine's intake valves, which delays the compression cycle, improving engine efficiency.

Compared to the Prius, which is purely a hybrid and is not meant as a luxury car, the Avalon is heavier (3,585 pounds) so you won't get 50 mpg. But, the EPA gives the car 40 City, 39 Highway, for 40 combined. I got 37.9 mpg during a busy week with lots of trips, so it's not that far off. The system reports your mileage for each trip when you turn off the car, so I noted commutes where I went over 40 mpg. It's nice to know that you can get to work using 3/4 gallon of gas.

The Avalon uses Toyotas sharp, colorful display screens, so I was able to track when the car was using the motor or the engine--or both. And, you can see when it's charging the battery, which a good hybrid always does when you slow down or brake. This kind of information helps you drive more efficiently.

You can select the ECO setting to enhance your fuel conservation, but it makes the accelerator pedal less responsive and reduces air conditioner cooling to do it. Conversely, select the Sport setting and throw economy to the wind and have fun. This setting even tightens up the steering response. I tended to leave it in the normal setting. Select EV Mode at low speeds and you may even drive full electric for up to a mile (great in parking lots).

Of course, the EPA likes Hybrids. The Avalon gets a 7 for Smog--that 2.5-liter gas engine does need to run at least part of the time--but the Greenhouse Gas score is a perfect 10.

The Avalon has been significantly upgraded in numerous ways this year to make it handle and feel better on the road. This includes things like a 12-percent stiffer unibody and improving the feel of the electronic steering system. The overall effect from the driver's seat is a very smooth, quiet and pleasant trip wherever you're going. From a non-technical point of view, the car simply goes where you point it and soon you forget about it.

The very enjoyable JBL sound system, easily accessed either though the touch screen or the steering wheel controls, keeps your mood up in the daily commute. When there's a break in traffic, you can get from zero to 60 in about 8 seconds--not bad for a car with a small engine and a motor.

The Avalon is packed with high-tech features, suiting its top tier position in Toyota's lineup. For example, it not only has a Blind Spot Monitor to let you know about cars you can't see in your mirrors, but it also features the Rear Cross Traffic Alert. The car warns you of other vehicles approaching from the side behind you. This is great when you're backing out of your driveway or leaving a parking spot in a public garage. I definitely heard  beeping when I was doing this--so it works.

Prices can be scary for hybrid vehicles, especially ones that are loaded with everything imaginable. They start at $36,350 for the XLE Premium and top out at $42,195 for the Limited (including shipping). My tester also included the Technology Package, which enhanced the already loaded vehicle with radar cruise control (follow the car in front), automatic high beams, and a pre-collision system. The latter warns you if you're approaching another car or object too quickly. Bottom line--$44,199 for my car.

It's great to see Toyotas get better looking and inclusive of every possible feature. However, you could shop the Lexus showroom too for $44,000. I tested a Lexus 300h Hybrid after the Toyota and, for about the same money, it offered a different experience, although it was a bit smaller. Toyota may be competing with itself here, but you win either way.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

MINI Paceman - Amazing but Be Careful With It

MINI has been a bit hit since its revival under the direction of owners BMW. The little retro hardtop, which arrived in the U.S. for the 2002 model year, pretty much created the premium small car segment here. Since then, the brand has expanded its range to a multiplicity of choices, the most recent being the Paceman.

This new three-door hatchback is based on the Countryman four-door small crossover SUV, which is a slightly larger-bodied car built in a different plant, in Graz, Austria, that supplements the regular MINI line. Other MINIs are built in England as they have been since the original microscopic hatchback that debuted in1959.

The Paceman drops two doors, and some practicality, as a sacrifice to style, although it does retain that handy hatchback. That rear door opens when you press and open up the MINI logo on the tailgate, in the same way the VW Beetle has done since its revival in 1998.

As a longtime MINI enthusiast, I've watched MINIs grow and proliferate, and have tested some of them along the way, including a plain hardtop last July. I hungered for my time in a Paceman, and finally got the opportunity for a week with a Starlight Blue example. I was very excited, and I snapped a photo of it as soon as the car arrived to use as my iPhone lock screen photo, to keep the beloved car near me (that's the photo I used here). However, my week with the car was not sheer bliss, as fine as the car is.

For one thing, despite its familiar MINI design cues, the car is significantly larger than the hardtop. It's 5.4 inches longer, 5.5 inches higher, and 4 inches wider, on a 5.1-inch larger wheelbase. Most telling, it weighs 400 pounds more, too. So, you can't expect as nimble handling as the original hatchback, and using the same engines, performance will not be as thrilling.

My tester had the turbocharged engine, as a Cooper S, so there were 181 horses on tap. My tester also had an automatic transmission, which, while working quickly and efficiently, was not the same as a clutch and manual, even with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. These paddles, by the way, allowed up and down shifting on each side, rather than splitting it left/right. I think the 121-horsepower standard engine might be a bit overworked in this 2,940-pound vehicle.

The EPA gives the Paceman with turbo engine and automatic a rating of 23 City, 30 Highway, or 26 mpg overall. I averaged 25.2 mpg, which is about as close as I've gotten to the EPA's numbers recently. The green scores are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas, or better than average, but not as good as the hardtop, which also boasts 6 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas, along with 29 City, 37 Highway, 32 Combined fuel economy with a manual.

I wasn't disappointed with the performance, certainly, as the flat cornering, quick steering and feeling of quickness and control were all there. I did find that there were a few annoyances, however, that surprised. me. For one thing, with its upright windshield, the normal sunvisor would cover just a fraction of the side window, so MINI supplies a special left side visor, which replaces the grab handle. However, the visor folds down and covers only about an extra inch or two of window. My face got baked on my morning and  afternoon commutes, and there was nothing I could do about it. I designed an extendible visor in my mind, and if I owned the car, would look into something like that.

Also bothersome is that I was unable to get the rear seats to fold flat. I used the car to take my bass to rehearsal, and it fit in there just fine, but if I were sliding boxes in it would be disappointing. I didn't see any way to make them fold flat, even consulting the owner's manual.

The MINI interiors are fanciful, fun to look at, seemingly well made, but sometimes frustrating to use. I do enjoy using the toggle buttons for things like the lights and sunroof, but in noticed that this car actually had door-mounted window switches--the first MINI I recall with them. However, the playful, Disney-inspired cockpit puts lots of tiny buttons low on the center panel, which makes you take your eyes off the road to use them.

There's a little joy stick controller in the floor-mounted center console for operating the dash-mounted information panel, and with some practice, I was able to do things like select radio stations or make climate control adjustments without looking. Funny that the huge 8-inch-diameter center-mounted speedometer, to accommodate this info panel, floats it awkwardly in the center of the gauge, making me think of "round peg, square hole." This may be addressed in the next generation cars.

I wished every road was a curving back road when I had this car. My time out there was bliss, and the car really shone. In commute traffic, being taller and bigger than a MINI hardtop gave the Paceman more comfort and road presence, so that was good, too. Flip the Sport button and the steering tightens up, the shifts are delayed, and you feel even more like you're piloting a sports car.

Another issue: I slammed my hand in the door one night, mysteriously. I later figured out that the door fools you. The window and interior panels are one size, but the door cut from the outside arcs around several inches, with a wide swath of two metal panels only. It tricked me. While entirely unnecessary and kind of phony, this door cut gives the right roundy, friendly MINI look -- but beware.

MINI's philosophy includes being "different" and it certainly is in so many ways. One feature is the ability to customize your car more widely than most other vehicles. Not only can you add things, but you can choose between options at no additional cost. So, besides picking between engines, transmissions, two- or all-wheel Drive and interior and exterior colors, you can choose different seat fabrics, order contrasting or body-color mirrors and roof, put the Union Jack on your mirrors, add chrome trim inside and/or outside, and even change the color of your turn signal lenses (see below).

My test car is a great example of what happens when you check a lot of boxes on the order sheet, and it's reflected in what would become my final complaint -- the price. As equipped, my MINI Paceman came to $39,800. How did it get to that astounding figure?

The base price of a Paceman is $24,000, including shipping. That seems pretty reasonable, especially with the smaller hardtop starting at $20,400. If you want the turbo S model, make that $27,800. Adding all-wheel drive pushes it to $29,300.

Yes, that leaves another $10,500, and here's how it adds up:
  • Starlight Blue paint                       $   500
  • Leather interior                               1,500
  • Cold Weather Package                      750
  • Navigation system/Bluetooth        1,500
  • Premium Package 2 (sunroof)      1,250
  • 19" alloy wheels                             1,750
  • Keyless entry                                     500
  • Xenon headlamps                               500
  • Satellite Radio/1 year sub.                250
  • Harmon/Kardon premium sound      750
  • White turn signal lenses                    100

There it is -- the $40,000 MINI Paceman.

My feelings about the car varied over the test week. It's so fun to drive, interesting to look at (with the latest MINI design cues, sure to proliferate into the new 2015 hardtop), and filled with interconnectivity and information. I really like the big P A C E M A N letters across the tail. I enjoy the feeling of being in a MINI on the road. But for $40,000, can't you buy a real BMW?

My Paceman (I'd still consider buying one, despite my affection for the smaller Clubman) would include the turbo engine (S level), Satellite Radio (a virtual necessity for commuters) and possibly the Navigation/Bluetooth. I'd skip the all-wheel drive. With those features only, I might be looking at a $30,000 MINI, which is much more like it. I really liked my tester's Starlight Blue paint, too, but Chili Red and Light White come without the $500 premium.

MINI is successful, and growing, and there's much fun to be had, but try to restrain yourself when you peruse the option list, and be careful when you close the door.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Cadenza -- a Whole New Kind of Kia

If you've been following Kia over the last 20 years, you remember those first cars. I tested a 1994 Sephia and it was pretty basic. It had everything you needed but absolutely nothing extra. It felt like a knock-off previous-generation Toyota Corolla. However, unlike the Hyundai Excel a decade earlier, it wasn't really bad. It was just plain.

Well, of course, we all know the story. Over the years, Kia's models not only proliferated but improved significantly with each generation. Now, it's time for Kia to introduce their "Lexus." It's called the Cadenza, and a fine flagship it is.

There's no compromise here. There is exactly one model -- Premium. It's big and it's beautiful. And, it's full of all the good stuff -- standard. You get a navigation system and a 550-watt Infinity stereo with 12 speakers, including subwoofer. You sit on leather seats and hold a beautiful leather and wood wheel, bask in full climate control, and much more.

1994 Kia Sephia
The Cadenza is motivated by a 3.3-liter V6 that puts out 293 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque under the shapely hood, all driven through a six-speed automatic with SportMatic manual paddle shifters. Yet, it drinks regular gas. The EPA gives it ratings of 19 City, 28 Highway, and 22 Combined. I averaged 19.5 mpg. The EPA Green scores are 5 for Smog and Greenhouse Gas -- midpack.

It's a great thing that Peter Schreyer, the former Audi designer, is in charge of how Kias look. When I parked my Smokey Blue Cadenza test car next to my wife's Liquid Blue Metallic Audi, you could see some similarities. The proportions are just right, neither boring nor overstyled. While the German brands today are abandoning their formerly conservative, handsome look for something more exuberant, the Cadenza wears the look of a classic BMW, Audi or Mercedes. It looks expensive.

Inside, the car lives up to its impressive body, with the right look and feel. The heated steering wheel has the top third of wood, the rest leather. It's always fun to turn a steering wheel and have a different-feeling handful. It is definitely a luxury touch. Everything is there, including an illuminated console bin, sumptuous leather seating, and the perfect blend of textures and materials.

My tester featured both of the two available option packages. In case the standard amenities aren't enough for you, order the Technology Package and get Advanced Smart Cruise Control, where you can follow the car in front at a set distance (and automatically slow down when that driver does). You also get Blind Spot Detection, a popular feature that probably prevents hundreds of accidents every day. This package includes "Hydrophobic" front door windows, which stay clear when the rain hits them. I wasn't able to test that feature, thanks to some fine late summer weather.

The Luxury Package fills in what the standard package lacks. Get a panoramic sunroof, upgraded leather trim, a ventilated driver's seat with electric seat cushion extension, and an electric rear sunshade. The Supervision meter cluster performs a little light show when you turn on the car. The number dividers for the speedometer shoot out from the center of the gauge and assemble along the ring of the meter. I never got tired of watching the show. An image of the car winks its headlamps at you, as if to say "Hi." There's a little musical tune, too.

It wouldn't be a great car if after all that equipment, it was a bore to drive. Luckily, it's not. The 3,668-pound car drives like it's lighter, yet sails happily along the freeway in cruise mode. The sport-tuned suspension, along with the 19-inch wheels and tires from the Technology Package made the car feel planted and ready for anything.

My car, as a benefit of containing these packages, had the optional white leather interior and no extra cost. You don't see those every day, and I'm sure you'd want to take care with it, but it illuminated the cabin and felt very posh.

With the packages, this car really has everything you could want. I was sure there must be some flaw, and I did find one tiny problem. I set the otherwise divine audio system to NOT change volume with road speed, but it insisted on doing it anyway, so I worked the knob a bit when commute traffic speed varied. But that's it.

The price is $35,900, including shipping, for the single model. Add in the two packages and you'll be at $41,900. That may be the only problem the Cadenza will have to solve. Are there enough buyers for a $42,000 Kia? I think if enough people actually sample the car, after their disbelief fades they may see their way to signing some papers and participating in the remarkable Kia success story.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Doors and Sardines -- Noises Off Opens in San Leandro

Noises Off, written in 1982 by English playwright Michael Frayn, is a farce. That's a good thing. But it also means that there's plenty of, well, noise, and pants falling down and axe-wielding and carefully-timed entrances and exits through the multiple doors built into the versatile set. There are many constantly relocating plates of sardines, a theme that works its way through the entire evening. There's a pretty lady in her underwear during much of the play. Someone sits on a cactus -- and you see it placed on the chair at center stage and know that a cast member is going to hurt themselves before long.

The production is a play within a play in three acts (all of them called Act 1). We get to see the first act of the production of Nothing On, performed within Noises Off, three times. The first is the dress rehearsal just hours before the first performance. Lines are missed, blocking is still awkward, and tension is high. We meet the actors and director in Noises Off and we see them as the performers in Nothing On. They step in and out of character, and prepare the audience to be ready for an evening of hilarity but one that will require us to pay attention so we can remember who's speaking when an actor opens his or her mouth.

Cute: There's a program-within-a-program for Nothing On, complete with humorous cast biographies.

The second Act One gives us a view from behind the scenes a month into the 10-week run. The staging again takes place in the country home of the Brents (who are sneaking back from out of the country, where they have gone for tax purposes). However, in the dark between scenes, the actors have literally rotated the set 180 degrees, so we now see the backside of the stage, and against it, the dark underside of life in the theater. It's who's dating whom, who's mad at whom, who's bored, who's tired, who's gossiping about whom. We learn that all of the doors open to a common space.

Meanwhile, the play, to which we've already been introduced in the first Act One, proceeds out of our sight. Listen carefully, and you'll hear the same parts, but, of course, not delivered in exactly the same way, with comic results. It's really yet another play starring the actors of Noises Off taking place behind-the-scenes of Nothing On.

The third Act One shows us the complete breakdown of the production in a performance near the end of the run. We're looking at the Brents' living room again, but it's a very weary cast, and the hilarity ensues when we see how each actor (in the inner and outer play) copes with the mess. There are some surprises worthy of Monty Python -- and Bugs Bunny. Most fascinating to me is how some Nothing On actors can improvise -- perhaps too well -- and others can't get away from playing the part exactly, even when it's ridiculously inappropriate. This got big laughs.

Director Erik Scanlon, in his Note on the inside cover of the program, compares this kind of wild farce to Looney Tunes cartoons, and it's true. The manic energy, carefully timed comings and goings, loud noises and pratfalls are here done with people, not animated characters, but it's the same feeling. Anything can happen, and probably will.

There's a third level in this play -- the actors themselves. In these conditions it may be hard to separate the real person from the two actor parts each must play on the stage. Certainly it's an energetic and likeable cast, including local veterans, mostly younger actors. From Row 4, Seat K, it was easy to hear and to understand their delivery. It must be a challenge to have to act as an actor and as an actor performing as an actor (do you follow me here?), especially when the performers in Nothing on are meant, like the Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeares's A Midsummer Night's Dream, to be hilariously incompetent. The rodeo clown must be the best rider and roper, remember.

I had a chance to speak with several cast members after the show, and they were gracious, funny, and, well, exhausted. They were also, being pros, nothing like the roles they played in either play. I may have to attend the final performance to see if they, like the cast of Nothing On, have fallen apart too (somehow I expect that they won't). 

Noises Off  is the latest production at the Curtain Call Performing Arts Theater at 999 East 14th Street in downtown San Leandro, California. CCPA's vision is to ensure that performance-based arts are accessible to everyone who desires to participate or attend performances by keeping ticket prices low and class/workshop tuition affordable.

Performances run from the Friday, September 27 show I saw through Saturday, October 26. Shows begin at 8 p.m. on  Friday and Saturday nights 2 p.m. for Sunday matinees. See for details. Tickets are $25 general admission (with assigned seating) and $22 for students and seniors. The theater is intimate, holding a maximum of 67. There's not a bad seat in the house.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mitsubishi Outlander - Another Choice in a Crowded Marketplace

Experts predict around 16 million car sales this year. Many of those will be crossover SUVs; that category includes Mitsubishi's thoroughly redesigned Outlander.

The Outlander follows a pattern in the industry of offering a smaller "sport" model and a larger "regular" model. So the new Outlander follows the Outlander Sport into the world as a new '14 model.

It certainly looks different from the old car. New styling is softer than some of the more sharply angled designs out today. The shoulder line reminded me of older BMWs, and that may be intentional. The front eschews the gaping mouth of earlier Mitsubishi crossovers and now offers a flush non-functional "grille" at the top and a working portal for air below. The goal, besides distinguishing itself in the showroom, is to improve aerodynamics for better fuel economy. The car boasts a 7 percent improvement in its cd (coefficiency of drag) down to a remarkable .33.

The package stands well in traffic and your favorite parking place or driveway. My tester arrived in a handsome shade called Copper that glowed like the conductor metal itself. Interesting to me was the presence of the triple-diamond logo and the word "Mitsubishi" on the tidily styled rear. Is the company worried, after all these years in America, that folks won't recognize its famous logo?

It's true that Mitsubishi has had some hard times. While many savor the performance of the Lancer-based Evolution hot sedan, the latest Galant was a hard sell, and the sporty Eclipse went away. The quirky i-MiEV is not a volume seller. A tiny new Mirage is coming, which may bring some bodies into the showroom, but the real models worth considering today are the Outlander Sport and this new Outlander.

Inside, materials are hugely upgraded. The hard, flat bucket seat, nicely leather-wrapped, sits up high, so you can actually see the top of the hood. The wipers are hidden, so looking out, you see a clean line at the rear hood edge, and closer in, a straightforward black and silver instrument panel and dash that wouldn't look out of place in a Volkswagen. Piano black trim gleams while "woodgrain" upgrades the doors.

All controls are mounted high and are easily accessible. The instrument panel greets you when you push the start button, and says "See You," when you turn the car off. Friendly. I wasn't happy that the visors don't slide along the side to block sun during significant trips south in the morning and north in the late afternoon. The air conditioning is a little too energetic in its work, and the car felt cold a lot, but overall, it's a happy place to be in the driver's seat.

It's very quiet inside the car, thanks to increased insulation throughout. It's easy to enjoy the music system--in the case of my car, an optional 710-watt Rockford-Fosgate system with nine speakers, including a 10-inch subwoofer living in the rear compartment behind the third-row seat.

Speaking of those seats, they all fold flat, but the middle row took some consultation with the owner's manual to figure out how to get then to do it. The control that's visible only folds the seat partly forward and slides it to make room for third-row access. Lift the lower cushion and you'll find a button to allow the seat to fold flat.

There are two engine choices, and they're tied to model level. The base ES and mid-level SE models get a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder that puts out 166 horsepower and 162 lb.-ft. of torque. It offers the MIVEC system (Mitsubishi Innovative Valve-timing Electric Control). That means it adjusts to run more efficiently, which is what all of these midsize crossovers are trying to do to make themselves desirable devices for increasingly green-minded families. A continuously-variable automatic transmission comes with the four-cylinder.

The Outlander GT, like my tester, employs a larger 3.0-liter V6, which ups the horsepower to 224 horsepower and 215 lb.-ft. of torque. While hardly burning rubber during acceleration, this engine has enough guts to make the Outlander fun to drive anywhere. Fuel economy numbers, officially, are 20 City, 28 Highway and 23 Combined. I averaged 18.9 mpg, and premium fuel is recommended, so this is not the car for the highly environmentally conscious.

The GT offers a six-speed automatic with a new sixth gear for better fuel economy. The EPA gives numbers of 6 for both Smog and Greenhouse gas, so the Outlander is a bit better than average. 

The GT or SE comes with either two-wheel drive or Super All-Wheel Control four-wheel drive system. Mitsubishi claims (rightly, I'd think) that all their experience winning numerous titles in the World Rally Championship, including several outright wins at the Dakar rally, a legendary tough race. The S-AWC system offers four driving modes - the fuel-efficient AWC ECO, the standard NORMAL setting, enhanced tractability in slippery conditions with SNOW and the maximum traction LOCK.

My GT had the GT Touring Package, which added a lot of stuff, including a usable Navigation system with a 7-inch touch screen; a lane departure warning system that helps keep you awake, adaptive cruise control that syncs to the car in front; a power glass sunroof, leather seats, and that super sound system. As the top dog, it starts at $27,795, but ended up at $34,720. The base ES starts at $23,820, including shipping.

Mitsubishi has done their homework and come up with a nice vehicle. Combined with the Outlander Sport, it has a one-two punch. But will people look and love it in large enough quantities to make it a sales success? It's always hard to say for sure, but the two Outlanders seem to be making a good name for themselves. If only people take the time to shop around, some will go for this all-new vehicle.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hyundai Santa Fe - New, and Now, Two

In the car business, part of what makes you successful is good product. The other part is good marketing.

In Hyundai's case, they seem to be doing well at both. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe is a major update of an important model--in a significant segment. But their marketing is what will help move more metal.

There are now two Santa Fe's -- the midsize crossover SUV is now called the Santa Fe Sport. It has two rows of seating and uses four-cylinder engines. The longer model with three-row seating now sold as just "Santa Fe" used to be called the Veracruz. Remember it? Didn't think so. Hyundai is leveraging brand recognition for it's more popular model, which, like the compact Tucson crossover, is named after a Southwestern city and is helping the company to sales growth year after year.

The Santa Fe is handsome, wearing the Fluidic Sculpture design that has been so successful in its sedans. It has a prominent, chrome grille up front, as today's vehicles must possess. The lines and folds along the side appeal to the eye and give the body the solid appearance of an iron bar, not an inflated balloon. The 19-inch alloy wheels added road presence.

Hyundai vehicles, when they first came to America, were obviously not on the level of Toyotas and Hondas, and were certainly not in the ballpark with European luxury vehicles. Today, many Hyundais are built in the U.S. (although this Santa Fe was imported from Korea) and have a look and feel that equals, or even surpasses, those brands. While Honda was cost-cutting a couple of years ago, Hyundai was offering nicer and nicer interiors. Now, the appealing materials, high build quality and sophisticated design are part of what you get when you slide into any Hyundai vehicle. Even the subcompact Accent is a well-turned-out car.

Like SUVS have been for decades, the Santa Fe stands tall, but it's a crossover. That means it's built on a car platform and has a long, slanting windshield, so the driving experience is more like a tall car than driving a pickup truck with room for 7, as the original Ford Explorer was, for example. This is the norm today.

My Circuit Gray tester was the upper level Limited model. The GLS is the regular grade. Many of these crossovers today are only front-wheel-drive, since so few actually go offroad. My car was one of them, although you can certainly order one with power that  flows to all four wheels if you live in areas where it would be a benefit in the wintertime. In Northern California, it's not an issue. The Hyundai all-wheel-drive system is called Active Cornering AWD, which distributes the torque through a computer program to keep you safely on the road.

Hyundais have offered lots of features for the money over the years, and features like Driver-Selectable Steering Mode give a nod to Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover. A button on the steering wheel lets you select Comfort, Normal and Sport modes. It changes your driving experience. Comfort might be handy when driving around in town or parking. Normal is fine in all cases, especially on the highway. Sport tightens up everything for more fun on country roads.

While the lighter Santa Fe Sport does just fine with a 2.4-liter or 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine, the Santa Fe gets a 3.3-liter V6, which puts out a generous 290 horsepower and 252 lb.-ft. of torque through a six-speed automatic. That's comparable horsepower with other midsize crossovers, which tend to offer slightly larger displacement, such as 3.5-liters. The Santa Fe is a little bit lighter than its rivals, and this helps to get it EPA ratings of 18 City, 25 Highway (21 Combined). My actual mileage was 22.7 mpg. The EPA's green scores are a 5 for Smog and Greenhouse Gas - dead center.

The two-ton Santa Fe, more than 300 pounds lighter than its Veracruz predecessor, moves with alacrity on the highway and gets around town just fine. There's a place in my neighborhood where you have to turn onto a street that immediately climbs up sharply, with a right and left turn, and the Santa Fe felt happy there, not swaying back and forth, with plenty of energy to make the climb without downshifting. Perhaps its Vehicle Stability Management helps in that feeling in control in those circumstances.

My tester sweetened the deal with the Technology Package ($2,900). That added an enormous panoramic sunroof, with glass along nearly the entire roof, with the front half sliding open. It also included a navigation system--something almost essential these days. It also provided me with an Infinity Logic 7 550-watt Surround Sound audio system that was entertaining during my commute drudgery. A heated steering wheel was there, too, but it being September at the time of my test, it went unused.

Choices are simple--GLS or Limited and front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Or, opt for the Santa Fe Sport for lower cost and better fuel economy, if you won't need that third row seat, the extra 10 cubic feet of cargo capacity, or the Santa Fe's 5,000 pound towing ability (it's 3,500 lb. with the Sport--and both require trailer brakes).

The GLS starts at $29,455 and the Limited at $34,205 (both including shipping). My tester, with the technology package, came to $36,980. So don't think "Hyundai" and "cheap" in the same sentence any more. That's competitive pricing, but not lower than rival vehicles. Today, Hyundai competes as an equal, so you have to decide if you like the look, feel, performance, features, and, that great warranty.

See my video review here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Acura RLX Leads the Way

The 2014 Acura RLX is Honda's premium brand's new flagship. It is the largest Acura sedan ever made, the better to compete with all those other cars hoping for your luxury car dollar. It succeeds the RL, which has sold somewhat slowly.

Does a midsize luxury sedan have to have a V8? Acura doesn't think so. This new sedan has a slightly smaller 3.5-liter V6 instead of the RL's 3.7-liter, but horsepower is up by 10 to an impressive 310. Torque bumps up by 1 to 272. And more than 90 percent of the engine's peak torque is available between 2,000 and 6,600 rpm, so there's never a slow or hesitant moment behind the wheel. A six-speed automatic is the only transmission offered.

The new car addresses concerns the RL's problem of being slightly smaller than the competition, and therefore falling off many shopping lists. A two-inch-longer wheelbase provides cavernous rear legroom, and the extra 1.7 inches of width gives those happy rear passengers a little more private space.

No one can argue that the car isn't attractive, although it is not the kind of vehicle that jumps out at you. Staying subtle, the sharp-edged beak of recent Acuras is banished. In the now more subtle and rounded nose you'll see the Jewel-Eye headlamps, which look a lot like a large anniversary band, flattened into a plane. The sparkling row of lamps illuminates the roadway with a crisp brightness. At the other end, the taillights use periphery LED illumination, which produces a much more defined light than a traditional incandescent bulb.

Inside, there's all the soft and subtle touches that promote relaxation. I noted leather on the dash, something rarely found in anything short of a Rolls. It's all sweeping and energetic, with black surfaces and brushed-look trim. The leather continues on the seats, armrests, and shift knob. On the steering wheel, the adjustments at 3 and 9 for volume and digital information are little wheels--easy to roll with your thumb to make your selection.

There's a friendly four-note tone when you start the car and then--silence. The direct-injection engine (Acura's first) sends the car along the freeway like a magic carpet. It's rated at 20 City, 31 Highway, 24 Combined by the EPA, which also bestows a 5 for Smog and a 6 for Greenhouse gas--midpack.

Acura has promoted its wares as being filled with high-tech, and this remains true. On the trunk is the acronym P-AWS, which sounds like little cat feet but is actually Precision All-Wheel Steer. This system monitors and calculates the correct amount of independent rear-wheel steering (toe angle) necessary for driving conditions. So, you won't see the rear wheels move, but they do help you around corners.

Another happy acronym is the Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS), which scans the road ahead and actively helps you stays in the middle of the lane.

An upscale and handy feature is Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), which lets you set a desired speed and a distance interval behind the vehicle ahead. This makes it safer to use cruise control in light traffic as well as on the open highway. This system comes with a new Low-Speed Follow capability, so it still works even when traffic slows below the speed you set. It will even stop your car if the vehicle ahead is in range of the system. The next step? Self-driving cars.

There are five models--all sedans--and all made in Japan. The "base" car is loaded already, and the remaining four levels add something each time. The second level is RLX with navigation, which also gives you a seven-inch color display and AcuraLink. The latter connects your car to a world of communication and entertainment. Level three is the one I tested--RLX with Technology. My Crystal Black Pearl tester added nine items to the second level, including nicer interior leather, great-looking 19-inch alloy wheels, and nifty self-folding outside mirrors. It also gave me the accident-preventing Blind Spot Warning System.

The last two levels, RLX with Krell Audio and RLX with Advance, pour on the electronics. Krell, a big name in electronics that I've never heard of, puts 14 speakers in its namesake model along with manual and electric sunshades. The Advance, at the top, ventilates the already heated seats and gives you the Collision Mitigating Braking System (CMBS). CMBS helps prevent your hitting someone, working with Forward Collision Warning, which flashes lights if it thinks you're in danger of having an accident.

It's all very technological, but the driving experience is laid back and effortless. You do get to feel the car when you take it on curving roads, and there's some road feel mixed in. It's not like the land yachts of yore, and I'm grateful for it.

Prices start at $48,450 for the RLX and move up to $60,450 for the Advance. Add in $895 for delivery. My tester came to $55,345.

If you're a fan of Honda products and want the nicest, biggest sedan they make, you'll gladly forgo Lexus, Infiniti, and various German and American sedans for this new model. Still hewing to the balanced, restrained look of generations of Honda Accords and the original Acura Legend, it's bigger and better, and will not disappoint.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Honda Accord Coupe - The Sportier Smart Choice

The Honda Accord has grown to be one of the pillars of the midsize car market in the U.S. Selling hundreds of thousands of units every year, it serves the needs of people who want room, comfort, reliability, high quality, and anonymity. Let's face it, there are lots of them in any parking lot, in every color.

While most buyers opt for the familiar and useful four-door configuration, there are those who want a little more sporty look and feel. For them, the coupe is available again in the brand new, ninth-generation Accord.

While it looks related, the styling is distinctive, and that's the main difference. As a coupe, the car has two long doors, so when you open yours in the parking lot, be careful! The general contours of the face of the car are similar, but the coupe's grille is slimmer and doesn't contain the horizontal bars of the sedan's. The carved side proportions, BMW-like, are similar between the cars as well, but from the center pillar back, the cars share nothing except the Honda logo on the tail. More tapered, the coupe wears chunker taillamps and a bolder rear bumper.

Both sedan and coupe are slightly smaller for 2013 (a first), but the effect is mixed. The sedan, already much roomier than the coupe, loses nearly three cubic feet of passenger room. The coupe, however, gains 3.5 cubic feet. I was able to put a six-foot-tall man (my son) in the back without complaint, although entry and exit is much easier with the sedan's extra doors. 

Underneath these divergent styling attitudes you'll find the same two engines, a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder and a 3.5-liter V6. As it's been for years, you get to choose between higher fuel economy and faster acceleration. With 185 horsepower, the four has eight more horses than last year's model, and is sufficient for normal driving. If you crave more excitement, opt for the V6, which delivers a heartier 278 horsepower, up 7 from last year.

Interesting--you can still order up a manual six-speed transmission in some Accord models, sedan or coupe. My test car, in Modern Steel (silver), had the V6 and the manual, and it helped to make the nearly 3,400-pound car feel more sporty than the sedan I  tested last year. Of course, sporty isn't much good in commute traffic, but the clutch isn't too heavy and the gear changes are smooth and easy. Pulling away from the freeway entrance lighting system or out in the country, the ability to shift for yourself is welcome.

The automatics vary by engine. The four gets a new continuously variable transmission (CVT), which replaces the five-speed automatic in the '12 model. This contributes to a three mpg overall fuel economy improvement. The four with automatic rates 26 City, 35 Highway, 29 Overall. The V6 uses a normal six-speed automatic, and achieves 21 City, 32 Highway, and 25 Overall. Yes, a bigger engine uses more gas--a tradeoff you will have to decide for yourself. My test car averaged 23.9 miles per gallon during the test week. The EPA gives the Accord Coupe with V6 a 6 for Smog and 5 for Greenhouse Gas.

There's an Econ button on the dash. I tried it, and it makes the car less responsive when you press the accelerator. That's less fun, but burns less fuel. As with the engine and transmission choice, you decide.

Although the new styling is a bit derivative, looking like a BMW and like the cars that also copy BMW's look, it is perhaps the most dramatic interpretation of the Accord, and there's no bad angle. I've seen the coupe in traffic and it has a nice hunkered-down appearance, and is not boring.

Inside, there's an all-new look and feel. Honda has taken a few lumps for cost-cutting over the last few years, but there is no evidence of that here. Dressed in basic black, there's plenty of silvery trim spread across the doors, dash and console. It will feel familiar to anyone used to Hondas, but seems to borrow some cues from upscale sibling Acura now, with more flow across the surfaces from one panel to the next. The silver slashes on the doors provide a rugged handle to pull the door closed and also a relief from the black plastic surfaces.

Of course, the requisite display screens are present in the console. The larger one at the top shows audio, navigation, phone, and other features as you use them. A smaller touch screen below it is a quick interface that will be familiar to smart phone users. The audio presets are there as touch spots, for example, and are easy to program with your favorites.

Honda understands that sometimes you just want a knob, so there's one for audio volume that stands out against the flat, shiny screen next to it. You can control a lot from the steering wheel, too, a common method in today's cars. Climate controls are at the bottom and are all buttons. This appears to be what people want now--at least the ones buying Hondas. There's a large round dial below the climate for accessing what's on the big screen, with Enter printed on it. Sometimes you need to answer the car's questions, including the legal advisory regarding using the navigation system while driving (basically, "keep your eyes on the road!").

My test car bristled with electronic helpers, including three that help you avoid accidents and are standard on the upper level models. The Lane Departure Warning system warns you if you appear to be changing lanes without the turn signal on. The Forward Collision Warning system flashes a red light and warning message if you appear to be closing in too quickly on the car in front. It occasionally misread the situation with parked cars on curving roads but would be a real help in stop-and-go traffic. My favorite, the Honda LaneWatch Blind Spot Display, gives you a rear view of the passenger side on the console display every time you activate your right turn signal. It's disconcerting until you figure out that it's there to help you.

My EX-L V6 with Navigation was the top coupe available. There are two four-cylinder models, LX-S and EX, but the V6 version is EX-L only (you decide on the navigation system). Prices start at $24,415 for the LX-S with manual transmission. My top-level tester runs $33,190 with either transmission.  Both prices include shipping.

The Accord Coupe is so pleasant and fault-free that it's easy to get used to its many features and cruise along happily. I did. While not a real sports car, the muscular V6, manual transmission, evocative interior and more than competent chassis give you some grins along the way.