Sunday, June 30, 2013

Canyon Johnson Lights up the Bistro

Canyon Johnson is a San Francisco Bay Bluegrass band that plays all over. Tonight, they brought their tight, smooth and pleasing blend of singing and picking to the Bistro in downtown Hayward, California.

The Bistro features nightly music of various kinds, often Blues or Rock, but this warm Sunday it was Bluegrass, traditional -- in the style of Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. Several of his legendary compositions were brought to life in the cozy confines of the corner bar and music venue.

The band comprises six people normally, but tonight, fiddler Amy Scher couldn't make it, so the five went on without fiddle parts and Amy's voice. But you wouldn't have known it unless they had told you. Every musician was spot on the whole three sets.

There were many fine moments from banjo picker Bob Regent, who, at the left, kept a serious expression most of the time. Eric Charles sang and strummed his handsome bluegrass mandolin. Jeff Caton played his guitar both as a strumming accompaniment and took many vocal and guitar leads. I am guessing that some of those mandolin and guitar solos might have been fiddle parts under normal conditions, but the guys acquitted themselves well. Jim Duber pounded out the necessary backbone of Bluegrass music on his bass--barefoot!

Bassist Jim Duber, often hidden behind the band
At the center of it all, tall, beautiful Patti (PJ) Finney sang many powerful leads and often accompanied Eric and Jeff. Her smile at those moments of three part harmony lit up the room.

You could tell from the way they played that Canyon Johnson know their stuff, and enjoy each other's company. When Patti, Eric and Jeff gathered together in front of the microphone, it felt like a moment in a roadhouse many years ago, when musicians, to amplify their traditional unamplified music, squeezed together in front of the sole microphone to project the sound.

The Bistro, a Hayward musical tradition, served up the usual nice mix of beers on tap, and the friendly crowd applauded enthusiastically.

The band plays often locally. See their website at for the details.

X1 - the Junior BMW Sports Activity Vehicle

There were some folks who were surprised or even upset when BMW went into the SUV business years ago with the X5. Purists, they were as upset about this development as Porschephiles were to see the Cayenne SUV. But that's what people want to buy, and it makes sense to move 3 and 5 Series lovers into larger accommodations when they need them. (The Porsche Cayenne has been a huge success, by the way).

I had the opportunity to pilot a new BMW X1 recently, and if you love the 1 or 3 Series sedans, you'll feel right at home. That's because this is truly a smaller vehicle than the X5, or even the tweener X3. All three X models are called sports ACTIVITY vehicles by BMW, perhaps to distinguish them from ordinary crossovers.

You can tell when you approach the X1 that it is more compact than its brethren, especially in height. It's nearly nine inches shorter than the X5--halfway between a typical SUV and a car. You can see that it is significantly smaller and lighter than it's X siblings, too. The table below gives some specifics.

                                                         X1               X3              X5
Length (in.)                                      176.5          183.0           191.1                         
Width (in.)                                         70.8            74.1             76.1
Wheelbase (in.)                               108.7           110.6           115.5
Weight (lb.)                                     3,726           4,068           4,960
Height (in.)                                        60.8             65.4             69.9
EPA Fuel Economy (City, Hwy)      22/33           21/27          16/33

The fuel economy numbers are for the smaller of the available engines. All three X models share a 3.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine that puts out an even 300 horsepower. For the X1 and X3, it's the bigger choice. They come with the excellent 2.0-liter turbo that is also in the 328 and 128 sedans. With 240 horsepower on tap, it moves the X1 along quite nicely, as it did in the 328 I tested recently. The X5 comes with a 400-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 as well.

The 2.0-liter gets an EPA rating of 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas--decent for a car of this size and type. 

The most notable thing about the X1 is how much it feels just like a BMW. When the X3 debuted years ago, it felt a little cheaper and the design, especially of the interior, felt a little budget, but in the X1 you get all the post-Bangle but still evocative curves and twists, the black and tan plastics, and nice brushed metal trim. I thought that the inside door grip felt a little non-luxury, with a slightly rough seam, but that was my only complaint. The dash itself  feels miniature--almost cute, but it has all the important data there.

The slightly higher position from a car (or BMW's iconic 3 Series wagon) gives that "in control" feeling that Americans claim is a reason to buy an SUV (or, more often today, an crossover vehicle). It feels better to not be looking up at someone's bumper. The X1's firm, compliant suspension and crisp steering deliver the sport sedan feeling, regardless of height.

The automatic transmission lever, now ubiquitous in BMWs, is a slim silver fish poking up from the center console. The X1 may have a manual available in Europe, but in the States it's not in the cards. Sorry about that.

The 2.0-liter turbo engine is rated at 22 City, 33 Highway, and I achieved 21.7 overall. I didn't drive especially quickly, but I did get stuck in some commute traffic. That was where the Auto Stop feature came in handy. It shuts off the engine when you stop, to save gas. This is a familiar experience, in, say, a Prius or other hybrid, but in a "performance" vehicle it's new. My monster BMW M6 (1,000th test car from a few months ago) also had this. I'm not sure how much gas it saves, but it has to be something. You can shut off Auto Stop with a button on the dash if it bothers you.

Americans love drinking (non-alcoholic beverages) while they drive, and the X1 comes with one built-in cupholder. But to get in that second one, there's a lovely detachable one mounted in the right edge of the center console. Like a silvery flower, it grows up and grips your drink effectively and quite aesthetically. I used it all the time. It pulls out and stows in the glovebox if you don't need it.

My tester had the M Sport Line, Lighting, and Ultimate packages, which added many fine features and many dollars to the total. From a base price of $32,350 for my tester, the bottom line came to $45,245. Some of the goodies in the packages include park distance control, a rear-view camera, high-tech Xenon lighting, automatic high beams, and more. The Ultimate Package actually included the Premium and Technology Packages, meaning you get a huge two-panel panoramic sunroof, power front seats, keyless entry, voice command for the navigation and other systems, and much more. Makes me wonder what a plain model would be like without all those goodies. They certainly made the "little" X1 feel like a real BMW.

The X5 starts at $47,500, and surely can be optioned up much further, so the X1 is a comparative bargain. To me, the compact, friendly nature of living with it for a week was a plus, especially if you don't need the bulk of the X5--or even the no-longer-small X3. And the X1 with the 2.0-liter four goes from 0-60 in 6.3 seconds, versus the X5's 6.4 seconds with its inline six, so you'll have plenty of fun out there on the road.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Baby Volvo C30 is Not for Everyone--but Definitely for Someone

The C30 is Volvo's smallest car sold in the U.S. The compact hatchback resembles a little the iconic 1800es of the early 1970's, but it is a modern vehicle.

With more interest in compact hatchbacks like this today, the C30 is kind of a relic, but a charming one. It carries the Volvo look to younger buyers, and offers, along with its turbocharged 2.5 liter five-cylinder (!) engine, a manual six-speed. Perhaps only older folks of a certain bent want to shift their own gears, but this car definitely has a sporty feeling.

That odd-numbered inline engine puts out 227 horsepower in standard garb, but my test car was one of 250 numbered limited edition Polestar models (the tiny plaque on the dash said No. 249/250). Polestar is the official tuner that Volvo uses to give its cars higher performance and more youth appeal. Thanks to Polestar, my tester put out 250 horsepower, because they boosted the turbocharger pressure. They also re-optimized ignition- and fuel-mapping, and recalibrated the throttle response. It's all done with software and chips these days, but there is no doubt that I flew up those on-ramps on the way to work.

The EPA gives the car a combined fuel economy number of 24 mpg (21 City, 29 Highway). I averaged 27.0 mpg--perhaps thanks to some freeway miles. The Green scores are5 for Smog and 6 for Greenhouse Gas.

How can you tell it's a Polestar car? Well, it came in a bright Rebel Blue paint. It also wore the small, square Polestar logos and flaunted a set of black wheels--the latest trend with young folks, apparently. It helped that my tester was not the base car, which is known as the T5. Mine was an R-Design model, which includes 18-inch wheels, a body kit with front and rear spoilers, matte finish grille surround on the outside and a shiny exhaust finisher. Inside, there's a special leather upholstery design, beautiful blue "watch dial" instruments, a custom steering wheel, and aluminum pedals.That's how a car that base-prices at $26,395 comes to $35,545 (including shipping). But this is the ultimate C30.

The driving experience is mostly fun. I was surprised that the company that designed and promoted seatbelts had one that rubbed against the side of my neck--and had no height adjustment. But the feeling inside the cabin is certainly fine, if a bit sober. The Scandinavian design aspect of this car is something to treasure today, when cars like, for example, the Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra, offer a bewildering symphony of curves and swoops in the cockpit. The contour of the door panels in the C30, uninterrupted by bling, along with neutral materials, promote calm.

The slim center console, a silver ribbon running from dash to floor, is unique in the industry, made possible by compact electronics. The textures in this car are a little more energetic, it being a special edition. The console metallic trim, for example, has op-art flows of lines around the knobs.

There are some definite quirks to this car that you will have to not mind dealing with. The audio system was easy enough to work, mostly, but when I wanted to see the artist and the song title for selections on the satellite radio, I had to pick one or the other--not both, thanks to the small display. And it took seven different button clicks to change the selection from one to the other.

Different but not troublesome is the way you hide your valuables in the open hatch area. The C30 offers a soft folding cover that uses two spring rods and four tie-downs to the hold it in place. Don't need it? It unhooks in seconds and takes up almost no room.

The car has a navigation system, but it is set using a remote control unit, which I found in the center console bin. The screen flips up on the top of the dash. There is also a button on the back of the steering column that gives you some control options. The software to operate the system is a little confusing, but I figured it out as I was driving around, so you probably can, too.

I've always liked the little kangaroo-style lower seat cushion pockets in Volvos, and this car has 'em too. Slipping into the C30 for a trip somewhere is a pleasure--except for those annoying seatbelts.

Volvos traditionally were boxy sedans and wagons that lasted forever, thanks to being designed for tough Scandinavian winters. During the period when Volvo was owned by Ford Motor Company, they began to be nice looking cars, too. The C30 is based on a compact Ford Focus platform, so since Ford has sold Volvo to a Chinese company, the C30 may not be long for the line. That means you should get one now, if you want one.

But who is the buyer for a car of this size and price? It's too expensive for most young people, and it is not the brand that MINI or Mitsubishi EVO enthusiasts go for. It's meant for that rare individual who can appreciate its many pluses and wants to drive something distinctive. And that blue and black combination really stands out!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Chevrolet Impala - Once Again, a True Flagship

Back in 1958, the Chevrolet Impala debuted. It was the top model of the full-size Bel Air, in coupe or convertible form. The goal? Affordable luxury for regular, working Americans.

Flash forward to 1965. The Impala, in my opinion the most beautiful year ever, sells more than a million units. That's the model--not the Chevrolet brand. It still stands as a record.

The Impala then spawned its own Caprice luxury model above it, but the name lived on. In the 1990s the Impala became less important as midsize sedans, such as the Oldsmobile Cutlass, took over as the mainstream favorites. After a few years in retirement, the name reappeared as a 2000 model, but this car was a large midsize front-wheel-drive sedan. Despite not being especially beautiful or up-to-date, the car sold fairly well, particularly to fleets.

1958 Impala
With the rebirth of GM since bankruptcy, and fewer GM brands to sell, the corporation has now delivered the first car to deserve the historic name of Impala.

The early 2014 Impala is big, and shares a platform with the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS--fullsize cars. Its sensuous figure wears many evocative lines and forms. The face peers intently forward, an intelligent and energetic expression on its slightly angled eyes and bold chrome grille. The sides wear strong shoulders, the waist tucks in, and the rear fenders carry a curve that goes back to the gorgeous '65--and even to the original 1958.

If there's any surprise for me, its that the taillamps are not the historic three circles but are a single, segmented chunk that looks more like something from a Toyota. But there is no doubt that this car has road presence.

How big is big? The 1958 car was eight inches longer, on a nearly nine-inch-longer wheelbase, and stretched nearly five inches wider. The 1976 Impala was more than a foot longer than the '58 and almost two inches wider! But we don't need cars that big today. The new Impala is full size, generously proportioned throughout, and the rear seating is just like a limo. It stands well above the midsize Malibu, as it should.

Inside, the styling is just as exuberant as outside. The theme, as seen on the Malibu, is another take on the twin cowl dashboard from the original Corvette from the 1950's. It flows aggressively off the doors and forward, around a sharply delineated and graphically satisfying instrument pod, pulling back to provide a well-equipped and lavishly decorated center stack, then looping back in front of the passenger. Materials are various and with one tiny exception, meet in perfect joins.

Driver and passenger are well cossetted, with surprisingly firm and multiply adjustable seats with heating and cooling provided. The seats, leather in my car, had contrasting piping for a jaunty look. There was stitching on the dash and doors, but I discovered that it was cosmetic! It was embedded in pieces of molded plastic. But the visual effect was pleasant.

One surprising detail. The display screen on the center dash rises up and there's a space to hide your iPod behind it--and a USB port.

Drivers will appreciate feeling a bit of the road through the steering wheel (which makes a face!). The dash carries swirls of trim that dance across the surfaces, making it hard to find a place to settle your eyes. Best to look out towards the road.

This new Impala carries over the previous car's fine engine--a 3.6-liter direct-injection V6 with 305-horsepower and 264 lb.-ft. of torque. The only transmission is a six-speed automatic with manual selection through a button on top of the shift knob. Modern automatics are so good that you really don't need to even think about them, but I tried the manual shifter. I learned that it automatically downshifts as you slow down, even down to first gear.

Of course, in the name of fuel efficiency, it tends to upshift at the first opportunity. I found that fourth gear was good in town. As an experiment, I tried shifting into fifth while going about 30 miles per hour and it wouldn't do it--"Shift Denied" appeared on the information screen in the instrument panel. It knows what's good for it.

Speaking of fuel efficiency, the car is rated at 18 City and 28 Highway by the EPA. I averaged just 19 miles per gallon. Maybe I was getting to lead-footed because it was so fun to do it.

I had an opportunity to drive the car on some of my favorite back roads and was amazed that it stuck so well in the corners and delivered a very satisfying performance. Of course getting up to speed was no problem--the car can do zero to 60 in just 6.8 seconds.

If there's anything that is nothing like 1958 it's the high tech features of this car. All the usual stuff is standard, of course, including things like satellite radio, OnStar, and blind spot monitoring. But this one also featured Collision Alert. This means that if you're coming up on another car quickly and haven't touched the brake pedal it flashes a red light in your face. It can be turned off, and I did so, since I found it was reacting to parked cars when I was turning and was sensitive during commuting. It is probably a great idea, however.

I was frustrated that every time I stopped and got out of the car, when I restarted it, it would pull the seat forward and upward. How annoying. Then, I discovered that there is a "Set Exit Position" setting, and turned that feature off--the day before I gave back the tester!

I received periodic alerts from the car, including "Wind Advisory," "Weather Watch--Fire Danger," and "Caution, I880 Accident." For the last one, sure enough, a half mile ahead were two stopped cars and a pile of broken glass.

Not much to pick on here--the fuel economy could be better, the sun shone into my eye off the chrome Chevy logo on the steering wheel, the door handle pinched my finger once and the view to rear from the high backlight showed only the windshield of the car behind me.

Prices start at $27,535 for the LS model. There is a midlevel LT, and the LTZ, like my Silver Ice Metallic tester, came to $36,580. By today's standards, that's a pretty good deal.

It's great to see such a fine car coming from the century-old Chevrolet brand. It's just another reason to celebrate the rebirth of GM - and to feel good about buying American.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Kia Forte - Another Advance for Compact Korean Cars

The folks at Kia have done as promised, and updated all their cars over a short period of time. The latest newcomer is the third-generation 2014  Forte, filling the compact role between the smaller Rio and larger Optima.

Competing in the compact sedan market is a real challenge, battling longtime leaders such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but this new Forte seems well equipped for a good fight.

Designed in Kia's Irvine, California design studio (but built in Korea), the new car has an energy and excitement about it -- always welcome in a segment where affordability and practicality are often the main purchase considerations As I've said about other new Kias, the products all benefit from the enlightened design sense of Kia's chief, Peter Schreyer, best known for his beautiful Audi designs. There's no reason not to make every car look good.

To make it simple, there are two choices -- LX and EX -- and each has its own engine. The LX uses a 1.8-liter inline four that puts out a respectable 148 horsepower and `131 lb.-ft. of torque. You can get it with either a manual or automatic six-speed transmission. The EX, like my Abyss Blue test vehicle, comes only with the larger 2.0-liter four with 173 horsepower and 154 lb.-ft. of torque. With only an additional 76 pounds between the two cars, the EX is significantly more sprightly.

Driving on freeways and in town, the Forte is hard to fault. It now uses electric instead of hydraulic power steering, but there's still plenty of feel in turns and the car feels solidly on center. The shifts are easy and smooth, and with the Sportmatic setting you can select your own gears if you'd like to feel racier. I would like to sample the manual-equipped car for comparison. The suspension absorbs normal bumps well and there's little squat or dive during braking or acceleration.

I look forward to sampling the five-door version of the Forte, coming out this fall, that offers a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine with 201 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque -- and a choice of the six speed manual or automatic. With its extra carrying capacity, the five-door could be ideal for many buyers (including me).

The EPA rates the EX sedan (automatic only) at 28 mpg combined (24 City, 36 Highway). Kia ran into some issues over erroneous reporting of fuel economy test scores last year, but these numbers bear out. I averaged 31.8 mpg over a busy week -- beating the EPA. Green scores show a 5 for Smog and a nice 7 on Greenhouse Gas.

As a driver, you spend most of your time inside the car and not outside, so an appealing interior really does matter. This one, considering its market position and price, is a remarkable piece of work. I am coming to the conclusion that Kia, the sibling of Hyundai, is aiming at the Volkswagen/European car buyer while Hyundai is chasing the Japanese car intender. The feel of the design and materials inside the Forte is more subtle and angular than the Hyundai -- less curvy and more sophisticated. The low-gloss plastics don't look cheap, and there is actual padding where you might not expect it.

The dash and doors are scalloped, giving a sense of motion and also of radiating waves. The only thing I've seen like it is the somewhat wacky but amusing interior of the Nissan Cube. The console offers a roll-top compartment perfect for stashing your iPod (and the USB port is right there ready for it). Chrome accents are not overdone and do succeed in moving the feel above utilitarian. Pseudo carbon fiber trim is preferable to fake wood, I guess.

The Forte comes pretty well equipped, with such things as power windows, mirrors and locks and Bluetooth. There are even heated outside mirrors. You can add to it, though. My EX came with the Premium and Technology packages. For an extra $4,900, you get a power sunroof, leather seats (front heated), dual-zone climate control, a navigation system, sharp-looking Supervision gauges, and a whole lot more. The 160-mph speedometer is wildly optimistic, but it seems that all cars are scoping their gauges this way these days.

You can make the Forte a more expensive proposition with the added packages. Mine, with shipping ($800), came to $25,515. Is that a lot for a compact car? Maybe not anymore. The LX starts at  an easier-to-swallow $16,700.

This is a happy story of a nice little car that is helping Kia grow year after year. Their generous warranty and increasingly attractive models have given more buyers a feeling of security about buying the cars and taking them home.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Honda Civic Si Coupe - Making Ordinary Special

The Honda Civic has been a desirable economy car choice for four decades. There's nothing new about buying one for economy, quality, and affordable price. However, since 1986, you have been able to get your Civic with a little something extra--horsepower. Today's Si models, in coupe or sedan styles, continue the plan.

Putting a more powerful engine in a car to make it perform better is nothing new. Just think of the genius of the Pontiac GTO, which transformed the midsize Tempest into a rocket. It's an inexpensive way to create a sports car.

In the case of the Civic Si, the engine grows from a 1.8-liter inline four with 140 horsepower and 128 lb.-ft. of torque to a 2.4-liter four with 201 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft. of torque. And, although garden-variety Civics come with  a five speed manual or an automatic, the Si is shift-it-yourself only--a six-speed manual with a leather and metal shift knob that falls nicely into your hand.

The Civic may have humble origins, but Honda has attempted to distinguish its performance by equipping it with four-wheel disc brakes, for example, and adding stabilizer bars to the suspension--21 millimeters up front and 18 in back.

Of course, there are many other ways to upgrade the car, particularly in the seats, with their "Si" embroidered in the spot behind your shoulders, and Si badges prominently displayed. And, sitting in the top of the lineup, all the goodies you'd want are present. You can pay more for the navigation system and summer tires, bringing the price up to $24,995. The entry-level LX Civic Coupe with a five-speed manual starts at $18,755.

Part of the advantage of having a sporty car based on an economy one is pretty decent fuel economy. Although the Si requires premium fuel, it is rated at 22 City, 31 Highway and 25 overall. Dyno Blue Pearl Civic Si Coupe tester achieved 26.6 miles per gallon during its stay. That's respectable. EPA numbers are 6 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas. Honda's reputation is as a clean vehicle company, so this is just so-so. The regular Civic LX and EX score 8 on Greenhouse Gas, moving them into the coveted SmartWay category.

The downside of having your sporty car built on an economy car is that besides the engine and special features, the car is still a pretty modest vehicle. The interior of the Civic is useful and comfortable but doesn't feel especially upscale or exciting. The two-level stacked instrument panel feels oversized and seems cheap, although it's hard to point to any one factor that makes it so. Honda's interiors have been criticized by other automotive writers, and the company is working to change that with revisions to the 2013 Civic.

1986 Civic Si
Although the Civic itself is somewhat modest, it is a bit larger than the original one, which debuted in 1986. I owned one, and it was fun to toss around. With its 90 horsepower and manual five-speed, it also was econo-car based, but it was a hatchback, giving it more practicality but a less stylish image.

Today, I took the test Si on a favorite back road, as it had spent most of its time with me on freeways and city streets. It acquitted itself nicely, but despite fairly communicative steering and an even keel on turns, and plenty of acceleration available in the straits, it left me wanting a little more. The Civic Si now weighs about 3,000 pounds. Has it  lost some of its playfulness as it'sgrown up?

The Civic has been a favorite of the tuner crowd, and perhaps today's car could benefit from a few little upgrades to make it reallly haul. But for making your day a little sweeter and more engaging, the Si remains a worthy competitor with the crop of hot compacts out there today.