Sunday, January 27, 2013

New VW Beetle Even More Fun

Sure, I'd love to own it.
Some cars are just plain fun to have. Beyond the driving experience, their very presence in your driveway and your presence inside them makes you happy. My recent week with a Yellow Rush 2013 Volkswagen Beetle was memorable for the joy of it.

We all know that the original Beetle was Adolf Hitler's idea of a people's car. Despite those origins, the Bug sold in the tens of millions worldwide, finally ending sales in the U.S. back in 1979 (but continuing elsewhere until surprisingly recently).

In 1998 the New Beetle showed up, with a water-cooled, front-mounted engine (unlike the Beetle's air-cooled rear unit.) Based on a concept car, it gave some identity to the VW brand for years.

The 2012 Beetle was all new, still based on the Golf. It retains all the styling cues, but in some ways is more like the original car (although the engine remains in front, with a radiator). Beetle maniacs will note the more upright windshield, flatter roof, and completely different taillamps.

Inside, the car gets an all-new interior that evokes elements of the old favorite--a flatter dash, with plastic panels the color of the exterior, mimic the metal dash of old. There are two glove boxes--and the top one flips upward. There's even a clever multi-faced surface on the windshield pillars that makes them seem about half of their substantial (safety-enhancing) width. They even provided me with leatherette seats and doors--that's the material my old '64 Beetle had.

A central circular speedometer is old-fashioned, but pretty much everything else around it is 2013. For example, while driving, I noted the up- and downshift display. It's part of teaching you to shift at the right time for maximum fuel efficiency. The secret, though, was that I had the remarkable TDI model. VW offers other engine choices in the Beetle, but the 140-horsepower turbodiesel is fabulous for fuel economy--and it's slightly louder sound evokes the ancient Beetle sound a little, too. Diesels have higher torque for their size--this engine generates 236 lb.-ft. of it--so you can easily drive along at just 1,500 rpm. That means better fuel economy--and a quieter driving experience.

Mileage is just one of the delights of Diesel motoring. I averaged a smile-inducing 41.8 mpg over the week of mixed driving, but using the two-way information panel in the dash, I tracked individual trips. I routinely hit 50 miles per gallon on the freeway on my 30-mile treks to work. At one point, the display read an incredible 57.3 mpg!

Unfortunately, Diesel is running a little more than premium gas at the moment, unfortunately, and despite technological advances in clean Diesel fuel and engine efficiency, it is not the absolute cleanest way to generate mobility. It still manages to get a 7 for Greenhouse Gas and 6 for Smog in the EPA's test--in the solid middle.

My yellow car was a real joy to drive. The wide expanses of yellow sunny plastic on dash and doors made me happy during a cold and sometimes rainy winter week. The car starts right up--and greets you with "Welcome to Your Beetle" on the instrument panel. The Diesel engine is not silent, but you only hear it, really, if you stand in front of the car while it's running. Inside, it's essentially silent.

On the upper dash, there's a centrally mounted set of gauges--quite sporty looking. The left is for oil temperature--important in a Diesel and part of a "real" sports car, too. The central gauge is a stopwatch, presumably for timing your quarter-mile runs, but I never used it. On the right, a turbo boost gauge lets you see what you can feel when you stomp your foot. Of course, if you're going to maximize fuel economy, you'd best keep from going to the turbo well too often.

Part of the fun for me was using the smooth and accurate six-speed manual transmission. Granted, manuals are a dying breed in the U.S., but my '64 had a four-on-the-floor with a long, bent handle an a tiny plastic knob like a drawer pull, and that was fun--in its day. I followed the up/down guidance much of the time--you don't need to rev a Diesel--and found that there was plenty of power to zoom up hills, pass on the freeway, and cruise comfortably at 70. Of course, an automatic is available and will likely be the gearbox of choice.

The gasoline Beetles come with other engines. The standard engine is a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four, with either transmission. For higher performance, you can choose the 2.0-liter turbo, which bumps output to 200 horsepower.

As before the Beetle is available as a convertible, too. This model, which just appeared, looks like big fun, comes in some interesting decade-themed models ('50s, '60s, '70's) and promise even more fun on sunny days.

My only complaints were minor. The seatbelt seemed to ride a little high on my shoulder and it is not adjustable for height (although the seat is). Also, the songs on my iPod stuttered when each one began. 

Prices start at $20,790 for the 2.5 Beetle with manual transmission. Prices go up from there. You can add a sunroof, Fender (yes, the guitar company) audio system, and much more. My TDI, with only floor mats, the unusual heavy duty trunk mats with "CarGo Blocks" and a first aid kit as options, came to $24,360. That may sound like a lot for a Beetle, but the car is no longer the starting model of the brand, and it comes with a lot of standard equipment, including heated seats, Sirius/XM Satellite Radio, cruise control, Bluetooth, and more. All prices include shipping.

The Beetle is a hatchback, and although the rear seats don't fold flat, I had no problem placing a bass back there, so it would work for me as a personal car. The driving fun, fuel economy and driving pleasure make this one a real favorite, and should help VW continue its upward surge of sales.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ford Fusion - A Beautiful New Start

Ford's new Fusion takes its place as a milestone vehicle for the company. Much like the 1949 smooth-sided post-war triumph and the 1986 Taurus, this car sets the tone for the future.

The Fusion, as a midsize sedan, has its work cut out for it, battling the longtime favorites the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, not to mention the ascendant Hyundai Sonata, redone Chevrolet Malibu, and a renewed Nissan Altima. But the Ford is a truly beautiful car, and that is one way to differentiate yourself in this segment.

The Fusion arrived in 2005 when as a 2006 model, it took over the role of the old Taurus, which had run its cycle. The Fusion bore the look of Fords of its day, with clean but uninspiring lines. After some styling excesses in the late 1990s Ford was understandably cautious. A 2010 restyling of the ends and dash earned the Fusion a Motor Trend Car of the Year trophy. But the 2013 is all new.

Look at that Aston Martin grille. That's a theme working its way through the Ford line, along with shrunken oval logos and squinting headlamps. The handsome exterior, with its folds, athleticism and edginess, comes from the European styling studios, and aligns with the New Focus and Fiesta--and the resurgent Taurus. Ford is leveraging its models worldwide now more than ever, and we are benefiting from this here in the U.S.

The interior of the new Fusion is as enthusiastic as the exterior. Especially notable are the silvery plastic trim pieces, which define the dash and the doors in a way unthinkable in the sober old car. The instrument panel is configurable, and I took advantage to show things like fuel economy on the left and my entertainment selections on the right. When you use the Bluetooth phone connection it displays the caller's name and number there, too. It's what we expect now--more personalization.

The dash has touch-sensitive controls for the climate system. You have to be careful not to accidentally touch one and change your settings. Also, it requires careful finger placement, which could take your eyes off the road. One way to avoid that is to use the SYNC system, which works on voice commands. It can be very effective or make annoying or even hilarious mistakes, but I did use the system to dial a friend by simply asking the system to "Dial Bob Smith" and it worked. It's a Star Trek user experience for today.

The new Fusion is the first car to offer three different power choices--a standard gasoline engine (in three sizes), a hybrid, and a brand new plug-in hybrid called the Energi. I was able to sample the first two--a Ginger Ale Metallic SE with the 16-liter Ecoboost engine and an "Ice Storm" Hybrid. While they looked very much alike on the outside, the experience with them was a bit different.

The SE employs Ford's latest EcoBoost engine technology. This means that a 3,400-pound car is powered by an engine displacing only 1.6 liters. That sounds like it belongs in a subcompact hatchback,  but with the EcoBoost enhancements (providing 178 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque) it was actually just fine. The goal of EcoBoost is to improve overall fuel economy by using a smaller engine to get the same performance as a larger engine. The engine in my tester was hooked to a six-speed automatic, but the SE is also available with an optional six-speed manual. I would like to sample one someday.

The other two models in the standard gas lineup include the S model, which features a traditional 2.5 liter inline four-cylinder, which, though larger, puts out 3 fewer horsepower than the 1.6 (and 9 fewer lb.-ft. of torque. Such is the power of EcoBoost to get more out of less.

The Platinum, top-of-the-line Fusion, uses a 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder, which churns out a robust 240 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque, making it the rocket of the group. Sadly, you can't equip it with the six-speed manual (yet). That would be a great one to match against some European sport sedans.

My SE had automatic shutoff when I stopped at a light. That helps improve fuel economy, and is a new technology in the U.S. With all that, I earned 22.0 miles per gallon--decent, but not quite the 23 City, 36 Highway EPA numbers Ford boasts.

The Hybrid Fusion enjoys all the look and feel of the standard cars, but offers a proven hybrid platform. It has been popular in the old Fusion, and I was able to get 37.1 miles per gallon from my test car. This is remarkable compared to the standard car--but also in being significantly lower than the 47 City, 47 Highway and 47 Average claimed by Ford's EPA tests. Apparently other testers, including the buff magazines, have had similar results.

The Hybrid offers some extra fun with its configurable instrument panel. Choose from four levels of  small graphs that indicated gasoline usage, electricity use and generation, and much more. You can also see how much energy is "recovered" from the regenerative braking system. On the right side of the panel, the Efficiency Leaves display grows greenery when you drive efficiently--and the leaves flutter away when you don't (or can't), such as when accelerating uphill on the freeway. Driving on mostly electric power in commute traffic fills them back in. It's "gamification," but it's effective in influencing your driving behavior--if you pay attention.

The Hybrid is heavier, and feels more planted on the road, but loses four cubic feet of trunk space from the presence of the extra batteries. On the freeway, it was able to run in EV electric only mode at up to 62 miles per hour -- a bump from 47 mph in the old car. With its comfortable seats and silent powertrain, the Hybrid was a very pleasant commuter.

When you shut off the Hybrid, it tells you how many of the miles on your trip were as an EV--when you were driving with the engine off. I found that overall, it was about a third of the time, but in town, around half of the time. Like other hybrids, this dual powertrain is especially effective in city or bumper-to-bumper commute travel, since the gas engine shuts off so frequently, and when you're sitting still, neither petroleum nor electrons are consumed.

Pricing varies significantly for the Fusion. The S model starts at just $22,495 and the Titanium, with its leather interior, automatic climate control, greater power, larger wheels, upgraded audio system, and other extras, starts at $30,995. My SE, with the Luxury Package, Technology Package, Driver Assist Package, and more, came to $30,975. Other than having the 1.6-liter engine, it was practically a Titanium as equipped. All prices included shipping charges.

The Hybrid, sold in SE level only, starts at 27,995.

The new Fusion is tremendously impressive, and with its range of choices can provide affordable family transportation, environmental responsibility, and, loaded up as the Titanium, something approaching a luxury ride. It's more than just another pretty face, and from what Ford has been saying and doing, you can expect to see continuing improvement and innovation from Ford's midsize competitor.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Subaru XV Crosstrek - Updating the Outback

In the mid 1990s, Subaru wanted to offer an SUV, but they unfortunately didn't make any trucks on which to base one. The answer? No one knows if they were thinking of the surprisingly successful American Motors Eagle four-wheel-drive wagon, but in any case, the company took their Legacy wagon and raised the ride height, added rugged-looking cladding, and gave it an outdoorsy name and presto! The Outback was born.

That vehicle doubly reinforced the all-wheel-drive nature of Subaru and probably led to much of the success they enjoy today. There was, for a while, a smaller Outback based on the compact Impreza. Nearly 20 years later, the 2013 Outback is more like an SUV than the original, and the name reads very traditional now. So, to appeal to youth, the Impreza, restyled in 2012, is the source for the brand new 2013 XV Crosstrek. Now that's a more trendy name, isn't it?

I drove a Tangerine Orange Pearl XV Crosstrek for a week recently. It sits about four inches higher than the Impreza, and that gives it an 8.7-inch ground clearance. That's important when you go off the beaten path, as so many Subaru owners like to do.

While Outback became more and more upscale and expensive, even offering an Eddie Bauer edition, the XV Crosstrek is back to basics. It comes in just two forms: Premium and Limited. If you want something more basic, then they'll gladly show you one of their lower-to-the-ground Impreza wagons.

Every XV Crosstrek comes with a 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, with 145 lb.-ft. of torque moving the 3,300 pound car. The Premium offers a manual five-speed or, for $1,000 more, the Lineartronic continuously-variable automatic.

Fuel economy is good, at 23 City, 38 Highway and 26 Average with the manual and 25/33/28 with the automatic. I hit it almost exactly, at 28.2 mpg. The XV Crosstrek boasts a 7 for Greenhouse Gas. 2013 EPA Green ratings no longer give an Air Pollution score--they provide a number of barrels of oil used per year figure--11.8 for the XV Crosstrek. Similar 2012 Imprezas earned a 5 or a 9.

The Limited is indeed limited to only the automatic transmission, which accounts for part of the $2,500 price difference above the Premium. The rest comes from leather seating steering wheel and shifter; automatic climate control; automatic on-off headlamps; a rear armrest with cupholders, and a rear-view camera. Every XV Crosstrek is ready to go in the cold and snow with power windows and locks; heated seats, mirrors and de-icing wipers; multi-information display, floor mats and temperature gauge.

My test car, a Premium with the automatic, was strong enough for most driving, but felt a little low on reserve when I went to pass a car on the freeway. I pushed on the pedal and not much happened for a while. The manual might have given more control of the torque.

All Subarus except the BRZ sports car have all-wheel drive. There are two types, depending on transmission. With a manual, you get a viscous coupling that distributes power 50/50 front and rear. Slippage moves power to the other set of wheels. The setup with the CVT is more sophisticated, and uses computers and sensors to evaluate acceleration, deceleration and available traction to send just the right amount of power to the wheels that can use it--up to 100 percent to either end. Both systems impart a sense of security in wet, winter weather, the kind we've had a lot of in California in January. Quick-acting heat helped insulate me from the record low temperatures, too.

Subaru's update of the Impreza moved the windshield out nearly eight inches at its base, so the XV Crosstrek shares in the extra spaciousness up front. The layout of the hooded instrument panel and console felt like a Subaru--well styled but not flashy, quality materials but not fancy. The touch-screen audio system used only one dial for volume and on/off but was otherwise in a single plane. It worked fine but the sound was only OK.

The exterior is handsome in a Subaru way. After a short-lived experiment in offering an Alfa-Romeo (Edsel) style vertical grille, all Subarus now conform to the market with horizontality. The grilles have six sides of varying symmetrical proportion and a thick bar runs across the upper half of the opening. Headlights are peering eyes that curve upward as they run across the sides of the front fenders. If the company opts to continue following styling trends, you can expect those to get slimmer over time.

The roof drops down gracefully as it proceeds to the rear, but sturdy rack bars permit roof storage and look sporty. The taillamps are chunkier now, and convey a purposeful, rugged feeling. The overall look is attractive without standing out too much.

There's plenty of space for people, and with the seats folded flat, the rear can carry nearly 52 cubic feet of your gear. 

How much will you pay for all of this? The Premium starts at $22,790 while the Limited begins at $25,290. Both prices include shipping.

Subaru has been consistently delivering good, solid, practical cars for decades, and it must be working, because the company was about the only one not to lose business during the terrible last few years in the industry. The new Impreza actually more than doubled its sales with its 2012 redo. The XV Crosstrek goes back to basics, but is completely up-to-date for safety, efficiency and reliability. And Subaru has some of the most heartwarming family-featuring TV ads in the business.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ricardo Garcia - Opera Star in the Making

Have you ever wondered what Luciano Pavarotti was like when he was just getting started? What Placido Domingo sounded like as a young man? You may get an idea if you go hear tenor Ricardo Garcia sing.

Ricky, as he's known to his friends and family in the San Francisco Bay Area, is home again to perform five shows on January 18 through 20 at the recently refurbished California Conservatory Theater in San Leandro, presented by Curtain Call Performing Arts.

I had the pleasure of attending a preview. Dressed in black shirt and coat over blue jeans and boots, Ricky performed four songs for us, accompanied by his teacher, Burr Cochran Phillips. From the first note, he filled the cozy, black-walled theater space with warmth and power. It was hard to believe that this nice young man, who had been chatting amiably a few minutes earlier, could deliver the dynamics and focus that he did on that empty stage.

Even if you're not an opera enthusiast, Ricky's performance really stirs up your emotions, from the enthusiastic but frustrated suitor in Tosti's Marchiare, to the grief stricken sole survivor in Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Ricky sang the Marchiare in Italian--such a perfect language for opera--while the latter was in English, but you can't help but feel it in your guts, whether you understand the words or not.

When you attend a solo performance, there's not much to look at except the performer, and Ricky moved in a way that reinforced the beauty and expression of the vocals. He explained that it's part of his training to study the physical gestures--doing character research to understand on how the role he's playing would act and feel. That makes it more convincing and enjoyable for the audience.

It's unusual and exciting to see a young person so focused on achieving a difficult goal, but that's the life for those aspiring to professional singing careers. Ricky's now a sophomore at the University of the Pacific, but he plans to graduate, continue in graduate school and then seek out a program for young artists. It's a long process, and it sounds even harder than becoming a doctor!

Why pursue something so difficult? Well, because you appreciate your God-given gift and you love doing it. That helps Ricky to persevere through the long days and difficult work of perfecting his voice for the future. Even with the struggles and the setbacks, "there has to be joy in the work," he said.

Ricky started singing early, along with his lifelong love of baseball. His most recent Curtain Call performance was as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol, the Musical, back in 2008. He was only a high school sophomore at the time. More recently, Ricky performed last September at the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, where he received a standing ovation. Placing in the Palm Springs Opera Guild Vocal Competition in 2011, where he competed against much older singers, was a big step, as well.

I learned today that male operatic voices are considered to mature later than a female, so a man may not be in top form until his 30s. Of course, with proper care and good fortune, he can work for decades afterwards. Ricky even has special exercises to get his body ready to successfully and safely deliver a powerful performance. "It's like yoga," he said. He sometimes runs a couple of miles and stretches before a show to get warmed up.

According to Ricky, it's a very competitive market after a young opera singer finishes his education. It's a "cutthroat" business.  But he gets a lot of support from his family, his professors, his friends and his colleagues. Having "nerves of steel" is also helpful, and he recommends never comparing yourself to others as you audition.

Since 2008, Curtain Call Performing Arts (CCPA), led by Artistic Director and Producer Andrea Gorham, has brought Broadway style theater to the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Their vision is to make performance-based arts accessible to everyone who wants to participate or attend performances. Class and workshop tuition is affordable, and ticket prices are low--for this show they're only $25 for adults and $22 for students and seniors.

You owe it to yourself to see at least one of these performances:

Friday, January 18, 8 p.m.
Saturday, January 19, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sunday, January 20, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

There will be a question-and-answer session after the show.

California Conservatory Theater (CCT)
999 E. 14th Street
San Leandro, CA 94577
Box Office: 510-909-9516

Monday, January 7, 2013

Nissan Altima - All New to Fight for Market Share

The midsize sedan market is a hot place in the car business. Lots of people want the ability to carry five people in comfort, with decent trunk space and enough maneuverability to park without trauma. If they don't crave a trendy crossover or a workhorse SUV, and aren't seeking a super-economical commutermobile, what better than a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata or Nissan Altima?

The Altima debuted in 1993 as a sedan that was situated right between a compact and midsize car. Lately, it's grown to take its place as a true contender in the midsize battle for buyers. The fifth-generation 2013 model is all-new from arrowhead headlamp to exuberant taillamp.

The car stands out with some surprising curves and edges. The front fenders have a rising wave that begins at the corner of the headlamp and then heads gradually upward to the tail. The chrome-rimmed grille looks forceably pushed in by the pointed headlights. The sides bend in and out like the much esteemed BMWs--but do it in their own way.

A few years ago, it felt like Nissan interiors were using cheaper plastic and their designs seemed a little quirky. Today, they manifest more like the ones found in Infinitis. The surfaces roll and weave across each other, with handsome silvery insets, bullnosed corners, and rich textures. From the forward-angled door grips to the rise and fall of the dash panels, there's constant motion in there--even when the car's stopped at a light.

As a commuter, I was especially impressed with the seating. Apparently, Nissan consulted with NASA engineers to design a seat that supports the body as if it's in zero gravity. NASA's seating and posture research helped set a neutral position that eases tension on long trips. And there's no 17,000-mph reentry to worry about!

In the middle of the handsome and straightforwardly laid out instrument panel is the Advanced Drive-Assist Display. Nissan is proud of how this presentation of information is closer than normal displays that sit on the center console and claim that the three-dimensional effect is restful on the eyes--it's kind of amusing, too. You can customize the information that's there to display fuel economy figures, individual tire pressure, navigation data and more.

The new Altima comes in roomy sedan or rakishly proportioned coupe shapes. Typical for the midsize segment, it offers four- and six-cylinder engines. The 2.5-liter four is 11 pounds lighter this year and gains seven horsepower, now offering 182 along with 180 lb.-ft. of torque. Most important for economy enthusiasts, it is rated at 38 mpg Highway by the EPA.

My tester, in a warm Java Metallic (brown) shade, had the mightier 3.5-liter V6. Nissan's sixes have been potent and award-winning for a long time and this one was no exception. While I hardly raced the 3,355-pound vehicle around, it felt more than able to take on anything I gave it. It boasts 270 horsepower and 251 lb.-ft. of torque--much more than its weaker sibling (although it weighs more than 200 pounds more than the 2.5-liter-equipped car). With EPA numbers of 22 City and 31 Highway (Average 25) it rates where some compact sedans do. My actual mileage was a realistic 24.5 mpg.

Between these engines and the four wheels you'll get a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT). Sorry--no manual. There are just too few takers to offer you one. However, Nissan has developed some fine CVTs and uses them throughout its lineup. And, the six-cylinder version has steering-wheel mounted blade-like paddles, so you can shift through some "gear ratios" if you want a sportier drive. Nissan has sold nine million cars equipped with CVTs over the last two decades. This Next-generation Xtronic CVT has 70 percent revised parts and has cut out weight with a smaller oil pump and other efficiency measures.

CVTs use belts and pulleys to create an infinite number of gear rations--and their computer programs pick the best ratio for the moment. This creates both improved fuel economy and some odd sounds from under the hood--when you can even hear them.

Many cars are moving to electric power steering these days to save hydraulic drain on the engine and remove weight. The Altima's new Electronic Hydraulic Power-Assisted Steering system claims to give you the advantages of both--a smoother feel with better fuel economy. Clever engineering makes it all work, and there is an abundance of it in the new Altima.

There's much more to enjoy, including a fine nine-speaker Bose audio system. It was so good that my wife complained about the following test car, which really did pale in comparison.

You can buy an Altima sedan in four levels. The base car comes with the 2.5-liter engine and a plain designation of "just Altima." Above that, each engine is available in the "S," "SV" or "SL." My tester was the top-level SL, which surely explained all the fancy goodies it contained. Leather seats always convey luxury, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel was heated, too. Dual-zone climate control is common today, but  you won't get it in the lesser levels.

However, the base car is kind of a deal. It runs just $22,550, but you'll probably want to move up a bit for more features. The mid-level SV with the four-cylinder engine should be a popular choice, and it starts at $25,250. My SL, with no extra options, came to $31,045. All prices include shipping.

Like so many Japanese-brand vehicles, the Altima is made in America, in this case, Smyrna, Tennessee. That means that lots of Americans are busy assembling cars in what has turned out to be a pretty good sales year in 2012.

The Altima isn't thrilling, but it is very nice, and will without a doubt deliver more than you need for as long as you own it. And with bounteous rear seat room, every passenger will feel well treated. The other brands' dealers are not going to like this.