Monday, April 29, 2013

Lexus ES 300h - When a Prius Won't Do

Many drivers are searching for the compromise between comfort for five and fuel economy. Often, they opt for a Toyota Prius -- the most efficient and well known of the numerous hybrid options on wheels. But what if you want a more luxurious ride? Well, Toyota/Lexus is more than happy to offer their newly redesigned 2013 ES 300h.

Although Lexus has offered a range of hybrids over the last several years, this is the first time a gas engine and electric motor have joined forces in an ES. The ES was one of the two founding models of the brand, way back in 1989, when it  was little more than a dressed-up Camry.

This sixth generation car is much more than that. The non-hybrid version comes as the ES 350, with a powerful six-cylinder engine under the hood. But my Silver Lining Metallic hybrid tester combines a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine with a high output permanent magnet motor to generate a total of 200 horsepower. It effectively moves the 3,660-pound sedan along very quietly and smoothly.

How quickly? Lexus' figures say an 8.1-second zero-to-sixty time and a 16.8-second quarter mile. Top speed is electronically limited to 112, but that should be enough.

The new design uses Lexus' "spindle" grille treatment, which is more handsome than beautiful. It is certainly more emotional than the subdued styling that typified early Lexus models, which were modeled after Mercedes-Benz products of the time. Today, the Mercedes cars are as wild looking at the new Lexus designs.

While they were remodeling and restyling, they added a little extra length to the ES. Not that your eye would know, but your knees will appreciate the extra room in back. I occupied the driver's chair the entire test time, but it definitely feels roomy in there. The new dash panel is a little more dramatically styled, but, is still a bit restrained compared to some out there.

The materials, as always in a Lexus, are top drawer and the places where they meet are perfectly rendered. My tester had the Ultra Luxury package, which brought "semi-aniline" leather (is this only half as nice as "full-aniline" I wondered). That$2,435 package added heating and ventilation to the seats, a trick power sunshade for the rear window (manual ones for the sides), ambient lighting, and a bamboo wood trim that was nice enough to make me wonder if it was real. The seats are newly configured and my driver's throne was a splendid place to be on my usual grinding commutes.

Also a pleasure while sitting in traffic was the optional Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package. With 15 speakers and 835 watts of power, it could make you want to simply move into the car. It's certainly better than what's in my house. Naturally, there was Sirius XM satellite radio, which is becoming common now.

The ES 300h drives like a normal car, of course, but it does show you where the power is coming from and where it's going. There's the larger center-dash view that is familiar to Prius owners, but there's also a tiny, simplified graphic in the center of the dash that conveys a lot in a straightforward way. The actual numbers are less than a Prius, as in every car on the road. The EPA says 40 Combined, made up of 40 City and 39 Highway. I got 34.5 mpg. The Smog rating is a 7 while the Greenhouse Gas is a perfect 10.

You can select how your ES drives with a simple dial on the center console. Driver Mode Select gives you a choice between Normal, Eco, and Sport. I tried them all, and Normal is just fine. Eco will keep the revs down to reduce fuel consumption, which is the opposite of the Sport mode. If you're out on some attractive back road, Sport's fine, but better to keep it in Eco and save fuel if you're just commuting or running errands.

Many cars, but the luxury ones in particular, love to flaunt their screens full of high tech wonders. The ES has Toyota's big screen with the Remote Touch Interface controller. While BMW and others like dials and buttons, this is more like a joystick with an armrest. You move the cursor around onto different squares for a range of features. When you approach a screen object, the cursor is attracted to it and grabs it--so you don't need to fuss over it. It gets to be fairly natural with practice.

My tester had the App Suite, so I had detailed traffic and weather information, stock market reports, and much more. You really have to try to avoid getting excited and looking away from the road.

The ES has been a big part of Lexus' success during its long lifetime, and it is somewhere in the lower areas of pricing. The ES 300h base price is $38,850, but you don't have to stop there. My tester, with goodies like a power trunk closer ($400), rain-sensing wipers with a de-icer ($500), leather shift knob and very fancy wood/leather steering wheel ($450), as well as the aforementioned packages, came to $48,114. That's a luxury car price, but this is not your average ride.

There's so much more to say, but you get the picture. While not being billed as a midsize sports sedan (let the IS take care of that), this Lexus offers subcompact car fuel economy with midsize luxury sedan accommodations, Toyota's nearly perfect record for reliability and safety, and a wealth of safety, entertainment and performance equipment. If a Prius leaves you cold, let Lexus take care of you.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Confessions of a Closet Deadhead

Once again, I find myself listening to the Grateful Dead on my daily commute to work. That means at least two hours of great music, and it's always something new, even as it's familiar. It's addictive.

So much to like. Jerry's guitar leads. Phil's wandering bass lines. Bob's enthusiastic singing. Lots of drumming by Bill and Mickey. Pigpen's down-and-dirty blues. Multiple keyboardists. A disco period. A post-disco period. Nearly 500 different songs by the Dead--and more by the guys as individuals. Covers.

What I like best, though, is the group musicianship. These guys, even at the beginning, but  always later--play together. I feel like they are different parts of one entity. I've read quotes from the guys saying that they just sensed when to come in or when to change songs or play a certain way. It's a feeling.

I appreciate hearing the same song done dozens or hundreds of different ways. God bless the tapers. I know most of the standard recordings, but when another version of Bertha comes on or I hear yet another version of Dark Star it's always exciting.

The band went through different periods, but is still around, in a way, with Furthur, so it feels like they've been playing forever. I guess in 2015 we'll celebrate 50 years.

In one hour this afternoon on Sirius/XM's Grateful Dead channel, I heard Blow Away, featuring Brent Mydland singing, then the harmonies of a version of Jack Straw. Then there was Pigpen wailing away on Promised Land. And on and on...

The first Dead I heard was The Golden Road on KFRC AM - the big 610, in 1967. They stood out then! I then received a gift of Anthem of the Sun (who was it that gave it to me? Can't remember...). I listened to that one on headphones in my bedroom over and over again in early 1969. Then, it was Truckin' on the radio and this and that. But it wasn't until I started playing the bass in 2003 that I began to appreciate Phil's inspired work and started buying the CDs. Now, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are favorites, but I like the freshness of Terrapin Station, too, and put on the other discs periodically.

Even though I have always identified with and appreciated the Haight Ashbury and the 1960s, I regret that I missed out on the live shows. I'd like to be there with the people, sharing the music in person. Luckily, thousands of hours live on. There are bands who play the music, too, and I've heard a few. So nice.

Maybe I'll find a way to get to a Furthur show. I did see Jerry with Merle Saunders at San Francisco State in the 1970's. Maybe I'll find a way to play some of the Dead's songs myself, too, with some other interested musicians.

What a long, strange trip it's been.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Fiat 500 Abarth - Small but Wicked

The 500 is the first Fiat sold in the U.S. for a long time. It's making its way onto American roads now courtesy of the Fiat acquisition of Chrysler back in the bad old days of late last decade. The cute little bug-like hatchbacks are fun, but not what anyone would consider a sports car.

That is, until the Fiat 500 Abarth came along.

Since the late 1950's, Karl Abarth and his company have turned modest little European cars into rockets and racecars. The 500 is based on a classic tiny 500 from those days, so bringing back the go-fast treatment for the new 500 makes a lot of sense. Thanks to turbocharging and intercooling, the little American-built 1.4-liter MultiAir engine under the pugnosed hood is good for 160 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft. of torque--big numbers when you're talking about one of the smallest cars on the road. Doing the math, that's 117 horsepower per liter!

To support all that extra oomph, the entire suspension is upgraded, with 40 percent stiffer springs and a lower ride height. Other suspension pieces make the car ride and perform unlike the garden variety models.

The Abarth comes with a five-speed manual transmission, built in Italy, that's already been proven in European racing. With its leather-wrapped knob, it sits in a little projection from the cute little dashboard. It definitely adds to the fun.

The dash itself features a leather hood over the instrument panel, with leather stitching. The fat steering wheel, an Abarth design, has grippy leather, a flat bottom, and a big Abarth logo in the center. Actually the word "Abarth" or the graphics are spread out all over the little car's small surface.

Besides the push forward you get when you step on the aluminum pedal cover, the exhaust note reminds you you're not in any ordinary Fiat. It reminded me of when my Honda Civic's muffler rusted off. They call the sound, "menacing." Really.

The accommodations are compact inside, of course, but not uncomfortable (at least in front). The sporty one-piece buckets are appropriately leather-covered and offer serious bolstering to hold you in place. They have racing harness pass-throughs, too, since it's not at all unlikely that you might race the little beast.

To keep you somewhat responsible, there's an upshift light on the left side of the dash. It tells you when to shift up to get maximum fuel economy. Amusingly, it sits in the middle of the turbo boost gauge, which encourages you to drive more aggressively. For more fun, push the Sport button, and the throttle opens up and the steering gets tauter. Also, the Sport button makes the shifting nanny disappear, replacing it with a redline reminder light.

You'd think a small car wouldn't be very practical, but as a hatchback, it's easy to stuff in a week's worth of groceries for the family--and even an upright bass. The tiny shelflet that keeps prying eyes out of the storage in back pops off in a split second, the seats fold, and you've got serious shlepping capacity.

The little 1.4 turbo gets a Smog rating of 5 and Greenhouse Gas number of 8. Fuel economy, per the EPA, is 31 Average (28 City, 34 Highway) -- I averaged 26.6 mpg.

There are cheaper cars of this size, including the 500 in its regular garb, which lists at $16,700. This one starts at $22,700, but with a few nice add-ons, such as automatic air conditioning and upgraded 17-inch white-painted alloy wheels,  the tab can hit $25,000 (my Rosso Red test car was $100 over). All prices include shipping charges.

But it's a pretty loaded vehicle. You get Satellite radio inside,an electronic vehicle information system, Alpine Premium audio, BLUE&ME handsfree communication system, a cool rear spoiler, fog lamps, and lots more. I got a nice thumbs up from a guy driving a "regular" 500 on the bridge. It was part solidarity and part admiration.

Not a silent cruiser, the Fiat 500 Abarth, built in Toluca, Mexico is in-your-face motoring, and if you order the 500c, you can roll back the top and get a better listen to the menacing sound while getting an old-fashioned racer suntan.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

BMW M6 Convertible - a Supercar for a Special Occasion

Photo: Victor Llana, Boundless Captures Photography
After more than 21 years of testing cars, I knew I was approaching a milestone -- the 1,000th car! With this in mind, I approached one of my two fleets to try to get something special to commemorate the occasion. They came through big time, with the BMW M6 Convertible. My week with it was everything I hoped for.

Cars, at their essence, are about mobility -- transporting yourself, your family, your friends and your stuff around. Of course you want some comfort, some entertainment, and some functionality, but beyond that, it's all gravy. Depending on what you can afford and your personal tastes, you can pilot a humble Kia Rio hatchback or a Rolls-Royce Phantom.

The M6 is somewhere in the middle. No BMW is an inexpensive economy car, but the M6 sits high in the lineup. Based on the midsize 5 series chassis, its a low-slung coupe with a set of rear seats that are mostly for show and grocery bags. The driver and front seat passenger, once they lower themselves in, are treated royally.

The M designation comes from BMW's Motorsports program. Various M cars have delivered high-performance racecars and upgraded road cars since 1972. The first M6 goes back to 2005, but there have been and still are a range of M vehicles in different sizes and shapes for sale today, including the esteemed M3 compact sedan. All are highly prized.

If power is a differentiator, the M6 has gobs of it. Its 4.4-liter V8, with twin scroll turbochargers, puts out a whopping 560 horsepower and 502 lb.-ft. of torque. This vortex of power applies itself to the road through a seven-speed automatic and standard 19-inch alloy wheels. You can order 20-inchers if that's not enough for you. The automatic provides paddles on the steering column for manual gear selection.

It's easy to find yourself moving much too fast, so the head-up display shows your speed as two (or three) digits floating somewhere ahead of you on the road. The gauges themselves are classic circles on a flat panel -- a no-nonsense approach appropriate to a sports car. The speedometer goes up to 200 mph. I didn't even get halfway there during my test, although you could certainly make it well into the second hundred given enough closed road or racetrack opportunities.

The car sounds great as you roll along and push that handsome right pedal, but it's not overwhelming or distracting. I found that I used the accelerator carefully so as not to jump ahead in the typical in-town and freeway commute traffic I got stuck in much of the time.

As a special car, the M6 got my top-line treatment. I took Victor Llana, my ace photographer, to the Pacific Ocean beach for a photo session. We got a field of yellow mustard on the landward side and crashing surf on the other. With the top down, the sleek body looks just right against sea and sky -- and contrasts well with the bright yellow of the floral backdrop.

My tester wore a special, limited edition paint called Frozen Silver Metallic. It's one of a special category of flat, matte-finish coatings that you normally see on show cars. Certain Mercedes-Benz and Audi models are now available in this surface. It is mighty impressive, but my research turned up a caveat: you can't apply normal wax or rub out imperfections, so you have to baby-sit the paint diligently. At the first bird dropping, get out that soft, damp cloth and remove it. I'd think a garage and car cover would be a necessity.

The M6 provides awesome power and performance. The official 0-60 time from BMW is 4.3 seconds. A test in the May 2013 issue of Car and Driver recorded 3.8 seconds. That's mighty quick.

Besides this stunning acceleration, you can also alter the way your car performs using little buttons along the wide center console, next to the panel below the shifter. Adjust the steering feel and the suspension to Comfort, Sport or Sport Plus. The acceleration you can set in Sport, Sport Plus or Efficient.

I played with combinations of these settings and found that for freeway travel and around town, Sport, the default setting, was just fine. When I traversed the gorgeous Highway 84 snaking trail across the San Francisco Peninsula after our photo shoot, I dialed in Sport Plus and it tightened up the steering to make a small effort move the car more quickly, with more feedback and a firmer effort needed.

My 9th test car, March 1992. It's a Chevy Lumina LTZ.
Twenty-one years of driving a different car every week has made me acutely sensitive to the feeling you get from sitting behind a wheel, looking out the windshield and sensing the cabin around you. As a BMW, the M6 is not frilly or fussy, but the materials are fine and well crafted, and the design shows a strong hand. You can feel the value and worth in the car, but unlike some other brands, particularly the Japanese upscale brands, the design is not swirly or overdone. It says, "I know I'm a BMW" -- no bones about it.

High-priced cars often feature wood trim, and BMW has that in some of its models. My tester, however, featured genuine carbon fiber, a silvery fabric weave, presented behind an apparently thick coat of protective plastic. It toned in perfectly with the black and gray interior scheme.

Fuel economy is a big point for many buyers, and you wouldn't expect a 4,500-pound car with a huge engine to be economical. In fact, the M6 is hit with a $1,300 Gas Guzzler tax on top of its jaw-dropping price. However, in my test week, over several hundred miles, I averaged 19.3 miles per gallon. The EPA says 14 City, 20 Highway, 16 Combined. I beat the numbers this time. The EPA Green Vehicle ratings show a Smog number of 5 and a Greenhouse Gas figure of just 3. No real surprise there. If you order up the manual transmission, you'll improve the Greenhouse Gas number to a 4 and add 1 mpg to the fuel economy numbers.

As a convertible, the M6 gives you the sky and the stars in just about 20 seconds. Like any upscale drop-top, all it takes is holding down a tiny switch on the console. The windows drop, the rear tonneau cover opens up, the top unlatches from the windshield header and gently folds into the space below the rear seats, the cover settles down over it, and the system beeps to tell you it's done.

BMW used a soft top for this car. One of my friends questioned this, but it makes for a lighter, more compact top and leaves some (but not a lot) of trunk space for a soft suitcase or two.

I enjoyed the car immensely and felt like I had a special week driving it. However, I would never be able to afford one. The base price of the M6 Convertible, with delivery and Gas Guzzler penalty, comes to $116,845. Despite being loaded with top-level equipment, including a 20-way adjustable driver's seat and a 12-speaker, 500-watt  audio system that uses a wide 10.2-inch screen, the M6 can be further enhanced with options. See your banker before you visit the dealer.

I'm already finishing up test car number 1,001, but I'll never forget this BMW M6.

See my video review for the Castro Valley Auto Show on Castro Valley TV.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Mazda6 - Fresh Midsize Sedan for 2014

For any mainstream automaker, the midsize sedan market is crucial to success in America. For a long time now, the leaders have been Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord. They offer plenty of room, proven reliability, reasonable efficiency but, until recently, not a lot of style.

Style is where it's at in the car business today, and Mazda wants a larger piece of the action. That's why the new Mazda6 is a real looker.

Tired of also-ran status, Mazda completely redid the new 6, and it shows. No longer saddled with a joker grin up front, it sports the Kodo design philosophy that also helps Mazda's CX-5 compact crossover stand out from the crowd. Kodo, which they say means Soul of Motion, means you get a carefully rendered, rounded shape that features edges that emerge and then recede back into the flow. You see this throughout the car, inside and out, from the front fenders to the dash to the door handles. The face is alert. The proportions are assertive but not overtly aggressive.

In a world of more and more visual bling, the new Mazda6 takes its cues from its revered Miata/MX-5 sports car, with a sophisticated, relaxed cockpit for the driver and smooth transitions to the passenger side. Piano black trim with brushed nickel accents connote elegance without resorting to artificial wood. The gauges are purposeful and also clearly visible in daytime glare and at night.

Despite owing its looks to a glamorous concept car, the new Mazda6 is much more than just a pretty face and body. The SkyActiv technology underneath is meant to get more efficiency from the engine, drivetrain, suspension and structure. That comes from reducing unnecessary weight through more use of high-tensile steel, for example. It also means that the 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine in the new 6 provides eight percent more horsepower and 11 percent more torque than the same-size unit it replaces. The stronger structure adds safety as well.

SkyActiv incorporates new technologies. For example, i-ELOOP, its name derived from “Intelligent Energy Loop,” is the world’s first capacitor-based brake energy regeneration system to provide power for all the electrical mechanisms in a vehicle. Energy regeneration is an essential component of hybrid cars, but in the Mazda6 it provides electricity without the added weight or complexity of a dedicated electric motor or battery.

The Mazda6 comes in three levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. The Sport is notable for offering a rarity -- a manual six-speed transmission. As perhaps a nod to its Miata/MX-5 sibling, this is good news for drivers who want more interaction with their cars. As usual, the highly intelligent automatic, which is standard in the Touring and Grand Touring, gets one mile per gallon better fuel economy, at 26 City, 38 Highway, 30 combined. I averaged 26.7 mpg.

My Soul Red Grand Touring tester, as a top-level version, had a long list of everything you'd want in a family sedan -- or even in a luxury car. The Sport comes pretty well equipped, but my upscale tester had leather-trimmed seats, a power moonroof, Sirius Satellite Radio, and outside, Platinum Silver 19-inch rims. The Touring model actually adds much of the upgrade from the Sport, with niceties such as blind-spot monitoring for safety and dual automatic climate control for comfort. I expect that the mid-level Touring model is the one most buyers will drive home.

There are a few surprises. My tester offered Pandora through the audio system, as long as you have it set up on your smart phone. We've come a long way from cassettes and FM radio. Of course you can use Bluetooth for your phone and a USB port makes it easy to plug in your iPod.

Pricing starts at a reasonable $21,675 for the manual-equipped Sport and rises to $30,290 for the Grand Touring. The Touring sits right between. These prices include shipping.

Coming later in 2013 is a SkyActiv 2.2-liter clean diesel engine. Like other modern oil burners, it promises prodigious power from small displacement, stellar miles-per-gallon numbers and a lack of diesel aroma, thanks to today's cleaner fuels.

Driving the Mazda6 is pleasant and satisfying. The new engine provides enough power for passing and hill climbing -- and you can barely hear it inside the cabin. The leather aroma adds a luxury touch. In a crowded market, Mazda has given its all hoping you'll give its cars some more attention.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Buick Encore - Seeking Youthful Customers

The Buick Encore is something new for the brand -- a compact crossover, but it is not the first small Buick. Following in the footsteps (wheels?) of the Special from the 1960s, Apollo from the 1970s and Skyhawk from the 1980s, the new small car is a carefully devised strategy to bring down the average age of Buick shoppers from great grandparent levels.

The moniker Encore may be meaningful in that it is part of Buick's attempt at a compact comeback. The name, despite being shared with an ill-fated Renault-based American Motors product from the mid 1980s, also matches well with Enclave, the name of Buick's larger crossover SUV.

The new little Buick is just 168 inches nose to tail, and hits the scales at about 3,200 pounds. It looks stubby, spreading Buick design philosophy on a diminutive canvas. Based on a car made in Korea (from the Daewoo company that GM quietly acquired a number of years ago), it is nothing like any Buick you've seen recently. At least it doesn't resemble a Chevy or a Pontiac, which was a problem for the previous GM compacts that offered a model for each GM division. However, there is a Chevrolet version of this model for sale in Canada, called the Trax. With different styling and equipment, it is not part of the U.S. product portfolio.

The little car kind of grows on you. Powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine through a six-speed automatic, it exhibits surprising spunkiness on the road, accelerating uphill on freeways and dashing determinedly around crowded city streets. It's only 138 horsepower under the hood, with 148 lb.-ft. of torque, but with the right gearing, you can get off quickly in first and save gas while cruising with a tall sixth gear. All-wheel drive is available.

EPA fuel economy numbers are 25 City, 33 Highway and 28 Combined. I averaged 25.2 mpg. Green numbers are 6 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas, putting the Encore in the desirable SmartWay category.

The Encore's short length makes parking easier in town, and the high 65-inch stance makes you feel more in control when driving.That's one of the big draws of crossovers -- ride height. Four people will be comfortable in the car, although a center rider in back might not be happy for long.

The other crossover drawing card is carrying capacity, and the little Buick gives you 48 cubic feet of hauling room behind the front seats -- and room for six grocery bags (and my two amplifier bags) behind the second seats when they're up. The second-row rears fold down neatly after you pull up the bottom cushions to provide a nice carpeted load floor. Even the front passenger seat folds, so you can carry that surfboard or ladder. There's lots of storage for small items, too, including two gloveboxes, a small bin to the left of the steering wheel, a console bin, and places in each door.

The styling, inside and out, is definitely aimed at premium buyers, and the materials are actually rather nice. This is a modest vehicle, but the boldly stitched leather steering wheel, carefully fitted metallic accents, attractive yet not overdone gauges, and designer color combinations keep you from feeling like this is some fancied up econo carrier.

One way to make a car feel luxurious is to make it quiet, and Buick specializes in this. Although many Buick owners are likely suffering from natural hearing loss, the younger target market for this vehicle enjoys QuietTuning, which not only keeps noise out but counteracts it with Buick's first application of Bose noise cancelling technology. Microphones in the car detect the wavelength of noise and send the opposite waves to speakers. This is used in headphone techology as well, and seems to work well in the Encore.

Baby Buicks come in the plain but well equipped Encore model, ascending through Convenience, Leather and Premium. My top-level Premium tester, in a handsome Cocoa Silver Metallic, had a Saddle interior with Cocoa accents that mixed warm reds and browns on the seats and doors with matte black in the control areas in a way that seemed well suited to an upscale brand. The wide swaths of plastic artificial wood were easy on the eyes but would seem at home to anyone stepping out of a Buick LeSabre or Electra sedan from days of yore.

As the top-level model, my car had a premium Bose seven-speaker audio system, Rainsense automatic wipers, lane departure warning, and a Forward Collision Warning system. The latter sounded a repeated tone and flashed a message if I appeared to be closing in too fast on a car in front (even if I was driving attentively). One other little warning told me when I left my turn signal on too long; this is surely a Buick feature from the list designed for the elderly, although I did find it useful.

To compete with worthy small crossovers like the hip MINI Countryman, the Encore has lots of electronic goodies, accessible from dash buttons and a seven-inch color display. The home screen's five selections help you zero in on music now playing, navigation, phone, music tone, and other "quick info." It worked pretty well, but the Intellilink, which uses voice commands, didn't always understand me, and phone calls that came in got dropped sometimes.

Of course, there are lots of electronic safety features in this car of today. Blind spot warning is very handy, especially with the fat window pillars, and Stabilitrak keeps the four wheels going where you intend them.

Pricing begins at $24,950 for the Encore and runs up to $28,940 for the Premium. My tester, a front-wheel-drive Premium model with optional chromed 18-inch wheels and navigation system, came to $30,730.

I looked at pricing for the sibling Chevy Trax. If you lived in Canada, using the Canadian dollar (at a .98 exchange rate today), you could take home the Trax LS for $20,000. If you live below the border, though, sorry.

Buick is taking a chance, presenting such a small car to its customers, but the MINI and Fiat brands have pioneered the idea of a premium small hatchback in the U.S., so perhaps the timing is right. I was impressed by the overall comfort and drivability of the little car. Buick's biggest challenge is going to be marketing effectively to the right people to get them to step into a dealership in the first place.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 9. It's Up to You

I wear my heart on my sleeve.

Time marches on — it’s a cliché. Even if you dye your hair or get a tummy tuck, you can’t change the clock or the calendar. But you can live fully today, and try to bring everything that has ever meant something to you into the present and do something about it. 

I wanted to play the bass when I was 18, but it took until I was 50—an age where I could join AARP — to actually make it happen. In the ten years since, it has blossomed into a vital part of my life.

From chasing down the annual model changes at the car dealers as a teenager, I now write a weekly auto column, and yesterday took delivery of my 1,000th test vehicle. It took me 21 years to get here, but it has been well worth it.
Car No. 1,000 - A 2013 BMW M6 Convertible

As a 60-year-old with a white beard, I have the right to dispense a little advice. Here it is:

Don’t wait to do what you love. Start now.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 8. Who's that Old Guy in the Mirror?

I remember my father saying that he didn’t identify with the image reflected back at him from his unkind mirror. My grandparents seemed perplexed at being in their 80’s. Approaching 60, I’m beginning to understand what they were talking about.

Maybe there’s something in the way I talk to myself that reinforces my identity. Does everyone do that? I wake up in the morning and as I turn off the alarm and sit up slowly, I start to list the things I have to do that day. It sets the tone. Is there an important meeting? Do I get to go listen to an interesting new band after work? Is that leak in the bathroom still not repaired? Is there a rehearsal to run to after dinner? Am I late on a project? I find that the day normally proceeds differently than I projected — and my feelings, once I show up at work, change over the course of the day regardless of my first thoughts at 5:15 a.m.

Is life that way, too? We tell ourselves who we are, perhaps forgetting that so much has changed, and is always changing. We think we’re the same person but we’re not. Or maybe we are essentially ourselves, inside, forever.

I was looking at a photo that I uncovered recently in a neglected corner of my home office. It shows my wife’s 1991 Toyota Tercel, when it was new, parked in front of the townhouse where we lived from 1990 to 2002. Isn’t it amazing that an image captures and freezes a moment, while time marches on? That car is long gone. We don’t live in that townhouse anymore. But I can remember looking out the front window at the car. I was there—now I’m here. The memory remains.

Looking at old photos of myself gives me the same eerie sensation. Young, slim, dark-haired. The thing is, I still feel like that person, despite the many changes that have taken place to my body — my brain’s container.

The changes are hard to miss. Heavier, by as much as 35 pounds, depending on when the photo is from. Hair is mostly gray now, and thinning, especially in the crown. Beard — white. Eyes — lines under them. Skin — starting to look more like parchment; more moles. Chest hair is turning white. Muscle tone – diminishing. Back – sore more often. Prostate? Enlarged (within normal range). 

But—beyond all that, I still feel like “me.” What do the people in the store or restaurant think? They see an older guy. They don’t know that it’s really me inside. I feel like I’m misrepresenting myself. Don’t they know I’m just a young guy, starting out? I’m guessing that most of us have this disconnect.

In a funny sort of way, being able to develop my adolescent interests in music and cars into real activities in my 50’s has made me more vital that I might have been if hadn’t made decisions years ago. I’ll never be a young bass player in a band, but I can play the music of my youth now, hoping to get the feeling I might have had if I’d had the fearlessness of my middle years back when I really needed it.