Monday, August 26, 2013

KFOG 10 at 10 Plays 1967

My musical friend Geri texted me today at a few minutes past 10 a.m. to tell me that KFOG 104.5 was playing my favorite year on their "10 at 10" program. Well, gee, I had to work, so I decided to tune in tonight instead. They play it at both 10's, luckily for us working types.

1967 was a pivotal year for me. I turned 14. It was the summer of love. Puberty was in full swing. But most importantly, I started playing the guitar that summer (that's me in the photo!). Suddenly, music wasn't just the soundtrack of my life, but I was an active participant. I listened to the Big 30 survey each week on KFRC, the Big 610, and bought albums (mostly Beatles). I learned the songs off these media by ear, and sang them in my bedroom in my own key. Today, I'm in a band, a Beatles duo, a community orchestra, and I still do a pickup gig now and then when time allows.

So, here it is, time for KFOG's pick of "10 great songs from one great year." I'll walk through it with you.

"Let's do the time warp again....."

Tour guide - Renee! Used to be Dave Morey, for all those years.

We start with the Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour. I remember this album. It was the successor to the iconic Sgt. Pepper.It had new stuff to go with what turned out to be a lame movie (compared to Hard Day's Night and Help). And--the put a bunch of singles on the other side--kind of cheating. The Beatles, amazingly, would issue albums with NO single from them. Now that's confidence.

Magical Mystery Tour--a real Paul song. Full of life and good cheer, not much significance. Still sharp and strong all these years later.

Ends with Paul's bass in the foreground....

Next... Jimi Hendrix! Castles Made of Sand. I had two Jimi albums and I used to play them through my Koss headphones while lying on my bed backwards (the cord wouldn't reach the stereo otherwise). I think my dad bought me these albums for my birthday (he had no clue of the contents and would surely not have enjoyed listening to them). But, as I found out later, my dad would support me in what I liked. He later would read every one of my weekly automotive stories, and sent me car books. He contributed to my camel collection. Sadly, he hasn't got to see all my musical activities over the last 10 years.

Sadly, too, Mr. Hendrix lasted a very short time. But, he lives on forever on 10 at 10.

Oh boy, Things I Should Have Said - The Grass Roots! More pop musicky after Jimi and the sacred Beatles. But a favorite, with nice harmonies, and the kind of bass parts that made me want to play one. Bongos. The bridge goes another way, as sixties songs do.... bongo solo --- or are those congas? "She closed the door, said I don't want to see you anymore..."

Sly and the Family Stone - Dance to the Music. Not my favorite, because they yell so much at the beginning, but the rest is actually pretty cool. Not very melodic, as usual for them, but very energetic and rhythmic. Bump bump bump bump.... Drums + guitar + bass (bottom for the dancers) - fuzz bass no less -- + organ (ride, Sally, ride -- kind of rude). Then, the horn section. Pretty cool actually. "All the squares go home!"
"Listen to the voices....."

"Here's Nancy Sinatra with some sound advice..." an ad for  Coke! Things go better with Coke! I remember Beegees Coke commercials, too. She was fresh off her "These Boots are Made for Walking." She sang the wonderfully haunting "Summer Wine" in 1967 with Lee Hazlewood. I liked "Some Velvet Morning" even better, but that's 1968.

Arthur Conley, Sweet Soul Music. A classic. I remember the girl I had a crush on with this one, Ramona, a dark-haired beauty. Arthur had one hit--this one--and sang about all the great soul music singers. "Spotlight on Wilson Pickett..." Otis Redding, (hear that horn section). James Brown, yeah, he's the king of them, y'all. Ending with yeah yeah and the horn section...

Oh ... Traffic's Dear Mr. Fantasy. Cool after the heat of Sweet Soul Music. Psychedelic...Steve Winwood was a teenager, but what soulful singing. Waaaaaa! (x4). "Please Mr. Fantasy, play us a tune...." There's that psychedelic lead, in the Hendrix mode... Not sure who the guitarist is. I realize later that I didn't know the names of the members of most of the bands I heard. Just the Beatles, really, and the Monkees. Their personalities were so public (especially the pre-fab four). The guitar solo takes us out..... and the bass thumps away as the tempo doubles.

Hear that 12-string guitar beginning. King Midas in Reverse... Now that's kind of obscure. Not a big seller for the Hollies, but I have it somewhere. Hear that flute in the bridge... Trumpets. Someone's been listening to Sgt. Pepper, methinks. A little like an early BeeGees song. It almost sounds like it's playing in reverse...

A speech from Dr. Martin Luther King. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies....Glaring contrast of poverty and wealth..." Anti war, as well as anti-racist.

Marving Gaye/Tammy Tyrell - Ain't No Mountain High Enough... One of the all time greats. So much great Motown music in 1967. I realized later that the collective group of songs was played by the same musicians--and I loved it. James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt--a black man and a white man--were the bassists that drove this incredible music. Marvin Gaye and I have the same birthday, too--April 2--but he, like other great artists, didn't stay here long enough. Murdered by his own father. Sigh.

The Rascal's Groovin' is a perfect song, and one that deserved its rise to number 1. It's a sweet, happy pop song that encapsulates the positive and happy energy of 1967. There was some of that, besides the Summer of Love events. Hear that harmonica, background singing. The bass bum - bim bim bum, bim bim... Ah ah ahhhh.... The Rascals did a wacky song in 1967called It's Wonderful that I loved, but it was a totally different deal.

Peter Sellers is James Bond... Ursula Andress is James Bond. David Niven is James Bond. Woody Allen is James Bond.... Casino Royale....

Cream - Strange Brew. Here's British Blues in all its 60's glory. Mr. Clapton staring a long career, which somehow, through it all, he survives to play another day. Sounds so essential now, but it was something very different from, say, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, or, god help us, the 1910 Fruitgum Company. As pop started to shift to bubblegum later in the decade this music retreated to the world of the lp--and FM radio. I moved along with it. You could listen to KMPX in the 60's, but it KSAN that really took off and played this kind of music in the 70's. YEAH--

Oh, no, that was tune number 10! Already it's over. It was a great 38 minutes of a great year.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mitsubishi i-MiEV - The Electric Car You Haven't Met Yet

You've surely heard a lot more about electric cars lately, with the Tesla, Leaf, Volt and others making the news. You probably haven't heard much about the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, however, so here's a chance to find out about it.I drove one of these revolutionary vehicles for a work week: Monday through Friday. It was an adventure.

Knowing I had an all-electric car coming, I prepared. With a posted 62 mile average range, the Mitsubishi would just barely cover my 60-mile round-trip commute, so I explored the neighborhood for a place to plug in. I found four ChargePoint charging stations, and applied and received an account card. That would allow me to use them. But, when I swiped my card at the station, I found out that they were only usable by the company whose building stood behind them. Oh, well.

The i-MiEV (i for short) is more pod-like and futuristic than most cars. It's a "one box" design, but there's nothing boxy about it. It is kind of cute, really. Inside, there's room for four people, but kneeroom is tight in back. It does feel spacious, however, with a high roofline. The hatchback configuration is useful.

The instrumentation is minimal, but it has what you need. Unlike a hybrid, you don't need to know when the gas is flowing or the battery is discharging. All you need is a digital speedometer, an estimated range meter, and a gauge that shows you how you're driving. Like all electrics and hybrids, the car is either using battery power or recharging the battery. You can be driving in town and alternating between using and charging--and keep that estimated range at the same figure for quite a while. I noticed that the i regenerates without an unnatural feel to the brakes that makes it feel like someone is pushing the pedal for you.

Receiving my White Pearl/Ocean Blue 2012 test car at work, I drove it home in the blissful silence of electric vehicles--and kept an eye on the range meter. With a posted 51-mile range, I figured I could go 30 miles with no problem, and when I pulled in the driveway, it read 22. That was perfect. However, it was obvious I'd have to prepare to charge at work during the day.

I went online and found another charging location a 20-minute walk away. The press fleet had kindly given me two charge company cards to use. This station was from Blink Network, another supplier, and I found a long row of  unoccupied stations. Great! It's easy to use these stations. You just plug in the cord from their machine into the socked on your car (behind what would normally be the gas door) and walk away. I used the regular (240-volt) charger and walked the 20 minutes to work. I called it my "exercise program" - helping the planet and myself at the same time. I would hate to have to do this every day, rain or shine, however.

When I got to the car 10 hours later, I found that it had filled the battery, but also charged me $1.50 per hour--$15. That wouldn't do for the long term. Apparently, it's connection time, not amount of juice you take, that they use to calculate your bill.

The next day, I worked from home, but used the car to visit a friend who lives 24 miles away. I figured, starting with a range of 65, I'd have enough. But, when I got there, I saw that I had only 29 miles left on the meter. I tried not to worry about it, but on the way home, I tried driving as carefully as I could, using good electric car technique. This involves accelerating gently, not going over 55 on the freeway, and being sure to get maximum regenerative braking where possible. From that 29 on the meter, when I got home it said 17. A miracle.

The most convenient place to charge your car is at home, even at normal 110 household current, so I pulled the cord out of the modest bag it came in and plugged in when I was at  home. However, 110 is slow, so you need to charge all night. With a partial charge in there already, it was full by morning, but when I started the process with the battery near empty, overnight was not enough to complete fill the battery--something to think about. You can have a 240 charger installed that should cut that time significantly.

On Thursday of my test week, I tried another charging approach. I had a friend (in an all-electric Nissan Leaf) follow me to the Blink charging station. We saw their quick station was free, and since the i has both kinds of sockets, I was able to plug in to the 440-volt charger. My i had have a battery's worth of juice when I did. We had lunch and returned 45 minutes later and the battery was full! If you can use quick charging, it's a real advantage, but stations are only in certain locations. Actually, the charging infrastructure is still in its infancy, so if you plan to charge on-the-go, you'll need to do your research. The charging company websites can help, and their systems can text you when your car is charged and provide other ways of making it easier.

The EPA numbers for electric cars use the MPGe rating--an "equivalent." My i had an average of 112 MPGe, figuring on 126 City and 99 Highway. The sticker says I'd save $9,850 dollars in fuel costs over five years compared to an average new vehicle.

That's good, because the total MSRP of the car, including $3,000 in options and $850 in destination charges, was $35,065. Of course, there are federal and state rebates that can save you a significant amount, and the cost of fuel and maintenance is much lower. Some cheap lease deals are around on electric cars, as well.

There are numerous advantages to owning an electric car, including low operating costs, minimal maintenance requirements, and a low carbon footprint. The main downsides are initial cost of purchase and limited range. You have to decide what works best for your driving needs. With a 30-mile each way commute, a 62-mile range is a little small. Other electrics have EPA numbers of 70 or 80 miles, and the Tesla offers a much greater range--but at a much higher price.

I actually enjoyed driving the i. It felt responsive, with the torque inherent to all electric motors. It was stable on the road, although it did move a little side-to-side on a major bridge with the wind blowing. The seats were comfortable, the leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter made those touch points feel upscale, and the silent, smooth travel was kind of like flying. The car is fully loaded with things like a heated driver's seat, a 360-watt, eight-speaker audio system, keyless remote, and attractive alloy wheels.

Oh, I left out one of the best parts--the carpool lane stickers. I was able to use the carpool lane as a solo driver in commute hours and it cut my trip by about a third. I was flying by those poor gasoline-using folks! That alone may be worth the price of admission to an electric car.

If I could use an electric car like this for commuting only, and had a fuel-burner for all my other errands, it would be almost ideal. The manufacturers are scrambling to increase range, and prices will come down as volume increases. I can see a day when the 200-mile range, $25,000 electric car will be a reality. For now, if you can live with the 62-mile range, you should at least consider the Mitsubishi i when you're shopping.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

European Car Delivery -- Big Savings and a Great Vacation

Bob with his Rebel Blue S60. Note Swedish plates.
Bob Brunton was a Volvo enthusiast years ago, and owned a treasured 240. Then, after a run of three Acuras, he came back to Volvo. But this time, Bob used Volvo's European Delivery program and enjoyed it immensely. We met the other day at Mil's Diner in Milpitas to talk about his experience.

This program has been offered by some European manufacturers for years, and it goes like this. Working with a dealer employee, often a European delivery specialist, you configure the car exactly the way you want it from the factory. Then, you fly over to retrieve it, drive it around Europe for a while, and then ship it home.

There are some real advantages to this arrangement. Because Bob worked directly with the manufacturer, he wasn't restricted to ordering a particular package. He could choose features a la carte, meaning, for example, that if he didn't want a sunroof ($1,800) he could delete it separately, along with the power passenger seat. He was able to select the sport suspension but with the smaller engine. That's not available here. He had a crack at some custom paint colors, too, and a light-colored interior not offered stateside. And, the car arrived in the U.S. with a fine set of French Michelin tires.

"The dealer said he'd never supply such nice tires," said Bob with a grin.

All cars slated for the U.S. are built to North American specifications, but still may contain features not found in the normal American fleet, such as rear-seat air conditioning vents.

As a financial representative, Bob likes to save money where he can. He estimates that by bypassing the dealer, he chopped about $8,000 off the price he'd pay in the U.S. He also got the standard 5 percent discount, and ended up with the exact car he wanted.

European delivery could be a great way to take a cheap vacation. When Volvo sells you a European Delivery vehicle, they give you two round-trip airline tickets to Sweden and put you up for two days in a fine hotel, in this case the Radisson Blue. After you arrive, you get a guided tour of the Volvo Museum and a three-hour visit to the factory to watch Volvos being built before your eyes.

"They take you from beginning to end," said Bob. "You see designers, then assembly workers, doing their jobs. The "marriage point" was a special favorite. "You could see the body and chassis meet there--a dramatic moment," Bob said.

At the factory, Bob and his contingent of about a dozen fellow car buyers got to meet with real Volvo workers and executives over lunch.

"They asked us what we thought, and we told them," he said. "For example, we'd like to get the Diesel model over here, there's a terrific small wagon I'd like to see, too."

Volvo provides a nice packet of materials on travel in Sweden, so you can visit castles, historic spots, great restaurants, and other attractions. There's also a ferry available to take your car with you overnight to Germany. When you land, you can drive right off the boat and test your new acquisition on the famous speed-limit-free Autobahn. Volvo provides car insurance during your stay. When you're done driving around, simply drop the car at one of the selected ports, making sure it's clean and ready to go, and six weeks or so later, it'll arrive in the U.S. You get a call and come down to pick it up.

If you travel on British Airways, you have the option of making a stop in the U.K. at no extra charge, for expanded vacation possibilities.

Bob lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and had the car shipped there. But there are other choices.

"I know a couple who had the car dropped off on the East Coast and then drove it across the country," he relates.

There are a few downsides to European Delivery. Bob says he had some trouble convincing his bank to provide financing.

"They didn't want to finance a car that was sitting in Sweden," he told me. "But I had the VIN number, so it shouldn't have been a problem." He ended up using his Navy credit union. They are used to helping sailors bring home cars from outside the country and it was a routine deal.

The other issue is, you have to hang onto your old car until the new one arrives, so if you were planning to sell it to come up with a down payment, that could be a problem. Bob has a few extra cars in his small fleet, so it was OK.

If you're contemplating trying this exciting and money-saving process, you can contact your dealer, or look for options at the companies' websites. European delivery is offered by Volvo and also by Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It's a great way to get the exact car you want at a discount price, connect with its birthplace, and have a subsidized foreign vacation in the process.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nissan Versa Note - Entry Level Never Looked so Good

The Versa is Nissan's lowest-priced car. Assembled in Mexico, it leads the pack of entry transportation modules, too, and it's no surprise. The previous Versa hatchback and sedan provided a lot for the money, giving upstart Hyundai and Kia a real contest.

Well, nothing stays constant in the car business (or anywhere else, it seems these days), so for 2013, Nissan brought in a brand-new Versa sedan. It was nice enough, but not that exciting. The 2014 Versa Note is something different, though.

Called simply the Note in other places it's sold, it's a five-door hatchback--a very useful configuration. It has the kind of eye-catching look that you'd find on, say, a Mazda3, with plenty of motion and character. My test car, in a bright, unpretentious metallic blue, seemed happy to be a car.

My first look at the Versa Note was when I saw the back of one on a transporter truck on the freeway next to me. It looked different--but sort of familiar, too. Then, I went by a dealership and took one out on the road with a friendly salesman. But my blue test car was mine for a week, and I took it all over the place.

Despite driving cars as exotic as the BMW M6 I had in April, there's nothing like a simple, straightforward little car. Despite its modest 109-horsepower 1.6-liter engine with 107 lb.-ft. of torque, the Note sings just fine out in traffic. The electric power steering delivers safe, secure, and responsive steering. The transmission, a continuously-variable automatic favored by Nissan in many of its cars, takes care of business. The brakes, front disc and  rear drum, have antilock, Electronic Brake force Distribution, and Brake Assist--modern technology that gives you confidence out there in the driving jungle.

The Versa has always been an economical car. The new one, with the CVT transmission, averages 35 mpg, with 31 City and the coveted 40 mpg Highway, per the EPA. I got 32.6 mpg, still better than most cars out there. And the the EPA's website gives the Note a 6 for Smog and a sensational 9 for Greenhouse Gas. It's SmartWay approved.

The basic car, the "S" model, comes with a five-speed manual transmission and some worthwhile items. It also offers a low base price of under $14,000. Step up to the S Plus and get the CVT automatic, as well as cruise control and an interesting and unusual feature - Active Grill Shutter. This controls airflow for slightly better aerodynamics--which means better fuel economy, too. The SV is the likely bread-and-butter model, with power windows and locks, keyless remote, Bluetooth, a leather steering wheel, and more. It starts to feel fancier at that point.

My test car was the top-level SL, with the SL Package ($1,700) and SL Tech Package ($800.). That $2,500 give the car everything you'd want short of a true luxury rig. You get nice 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, and variable intermittent wipers outside. Inside, enjoy Sirius Satellite Radio, a USB port for your iPod, heated front seats, and even a rear-seat armrest with cupholders.

The SL Tech Package adds a 5.8-inch color touch-screen display for navigation and also a ton of amusing electronic features normally found in cars higher up the food chain. You can even order Nissan's "Around View Monitor," which works along with the rear view camera to give you a bird's-eye view of your car for excellent parking.

I tried out the Navigation system and Satellite Radio, but never got around to using the hands-free text message assist. Apparently, it will read your messages to you. I'm sorry I didn't get to it, because if it's like the one on my wife's voicemail at work, it makes a lot of hilarious machine-brain-only mistakes.

From $14,800 for the S to $19,280 (including shipping), you go from basic to super. $20,000 is now the starting price for a car with modern electronics--and most people expect those features in any car today.

One nice little item was the Divide-N-Hide rear floor. Working something like an old-fashioned Monopoly board, a hard panel sits at exactly liftover height to make a flat floor when the seats are down, for easy loading. If you need more height, pull and fold it (it explains the process right there in the car) and you've got more space. If you like that space to be private, lift up a corner of the floor and stash a briefcase or laptop out of sight.

I wasn't expecting greatness for the price and market position, but I came away thinking, "I could live with this one for a long time." I got listenable sound from the audio system, high fuel economy, incredible rear seat leg room (shockingly like a limo), modest price, and effective upright bass hauling ability, and the car was actually enjoyable to drive. You can pick colors such as Metallic Peacock and MorningSky Blue to stand out.

It's never been so good at the bottom of the market as it is today, especially at the top of the bottom like my Versa Note tester. This is what the family car looks like in some countries, and it's a great way to keep it modest without pain.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hyundai Elantra Coupe Adds Style to a Favorite

Years ago, Hyundai vehicles were decent transportation devices but didn't quite measure up to the more established brands, such as Toyota and Honda. Their styling was boring or derivative -- or both! But since the Fluidic Sculpture look arrived a few years ago, Hyundais are cool.

The Elantra sedan got hit with the beauty stick for 2011. Since then, it has won awards and generally spread itself all over American highways. Today, you can get a five-door GT model and the new two-door Elantra Coupe. I just tested an Atlantic Blue sample.

The market for compact sedans is heating up and is brutally competitive, so Hyundai has chosen to distinguish itself. For one thing, it looks sharp. The flowing creases on Hyundais are almost enough to make you seasick if you study them for too long, but the point is, the cars look very good and also not like anything else. The six-sided mouth looks like it was designed specifically to eat up the competition.

My wife commented that she "could see the clay," meaning the models produced in the styling studios. The wavy lines and dramatic curves would be fun to carve into the models. I assured her that the folks in the studios use computer-aided design today, but I see her point. 

The Elantra Coupe is roomier than its competitors, moving slightly into the midsize category, leaving the others in the compact dust. A few cubic feet more makes more room for passengers and an overall better experience.

You can get an Elantra Coupe in the GS or SE model. The SE, of course, is sportier, looking especially so in the coupe format. The SE wears 17-inch alloys in place of the GS's 16's.

Every Elantra Coupe comes with the same proven engine as in the sedan -- a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder with 148 horsepower and 131 lb.-ft. of torque. In California, Oregon, and a few other enlightened places, you can get a PZEV (extra clean) version of the SE. The PZEV version loses three horsepower and 1 lb.-ft. of torque, but it gets a 9 in both Greenhouse Gas and Smog scores from the EPA, while earning official mileage scores of 27 City, 37 Highway, and 31 Combined. I got less.

The fuel economy gauge in my test car reset after each fillup, so I got 24.5 mpg on the first tank, and, with a few non-commute longer freeway trips, 28.4 on the second tank. These numbers are not the absolute best around, but are darned close.

The engine, combined with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, is a good match for the approximately 2,700-pound coupe. I would have liked to sample the manual, but the automatic did what automatics these days do--move the car along quickly with no fuss. Today's technology is probably a whole lot smarter than we are, anyway.

Hyundai has stylish exteriors, but it's inside where you really can sense that something has happened. The detailing is exquisite, considering the price point. Seams match. Surfaces are interesting and varied. The chrome trim over silver on the controls is elegant. The pinch of the dash where it meets the center console is dramatic and allows for slim storage pockets along the console. Only the SE gets aluminum pedal covers.

Hyundai also knows its seats now. I took two drives on Saturday that took me way out in different directions for events, and I never got sore or still sitting there. The seats are a bit more bolstered than the ones in the sedan, for sportiness, but also to hold you in place en route. The seats are heated in all Elantra Coupes.

Every Elantra Coupe comes with an audio system. The standard 172-watt system includes Satellite RAdio and a USB port for your iPod. The optional one nearly doubles the wattage to 360 and adds an external amplifier.

My tester, as an SE PZEV with automatic transmission, was at the top of the price chart. It's base price of $20,745 rose about 10 percent with the Technology Package ($2,300). It includes a navigation system with a seven-inch color screen and the optional audio system, passive entry with pushbutton start, and automatic headlamps. Total price out-the-door was $23,965. The base car, a GS with manual, starts at $18,375.

What a fun way to be frugal without being boring or bored.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Nissan Pathfinder - On a New Track

As an answer to Ford's Explorer, the original Nissan Pathfinder, based on Nissan's successful pickup truck, moved people with sport and utility.

Now, more than 25 years later, the fourth generation of 2013 moves from that truck platform to a unibody--becoming, essentially, a crossover. That's what the market is doing, too, so the timing is right. The unibody, along with other thoughtful decisions, drops weight by around 500 pounds from the old vehicle--so it is more efficient, especially with its 3.5-liter V6. It has only six fewer horsepower than the '12's larger, heavier 4.0-liter V6, adding to the fuel efficiency--or posted fuel efficiency.

As it turns out, the EPA ratings are 19 City, 25 Highway, and 21 Combined for the four-wheel-drive model (add 1 mpg for the two-wheel-drive version). I got 17.4 mpg in my week of travels. The EPA's environmental ratings are 5 for Greenhouse Gas, and a 5 for Smog, too.

To me, the Pathfinder feels large--certainly bigger than the original model. Nissan's new styling departs from the angularity of truck-based SUVs and delivers some of the molded and finessed lines of the Altima and Maxima sedans. This is a period of greater styling enthusiasm throughout the industry, so there are no more plain cars to buy. Up front is a wide, shiny chrome grille--a little retro--and the roof wears a handy rack. My Arctic Blue Metallic tester had the optional cross bars, so the rack would actually be useful for transporting luggage and not to look jaunty.

My tester, at 4,471 pounds, moved smoothly with the 3.5-liter V6. Nissan installed an XTRONIC continuously variable  automatic transmission, and with that, the car's computer can calculate exactly which ratio will work best for cruising, climbing, accelerating, or wherever the car takes you.

If you have any plans of actually using the Pathfinder offroad, there's a handy dial on the console for the 4X4i intuitive four-wheel-drive system. You can pick two-wheel drive for the most efficient travel under normal conditions. Set it to Auto mode and let the computer decide if four-wheel traction is needed, or, under real climbing or snowy/muddy/icy conditions, lock it into full-time four-wheel drive. It's easy.

What this car will do very well is carry families around. Crossover SUVs are the station wagons of today (you have to be of a certain age to even remember those big, full-size Chevy, Ford, Chrysler, Dodge, Rambler and other wagons that carried people in the 1950's to 1970's. Today, of course, you can take your videos with you, and my tester--the top-of-the-line Platinum model--had the Platinum Premium Package ($2,300), so the front-seat headrests contained screens for the second- and third-row folks to view videos. You get two pairs of wireless headsets and a wireless remote to give those back seat riders all the comforts of home.

The Pathfinder offers three-row seating. I never rode anywhere but the driver's seat, but my full-grown, six-foot-tall son told me that the second row accommodations had plenty of legroom, but that the lower cushion felt too low, and that his knees rode too high. The third row, however, is easy to access, because the middle row folds and slides out of the way, thanks to Nissan's EZ Flex Seating System.

My tester, loaded with everything imaginable, had Nissan's AroundView Monitor, which displays what's behind you when you're backing up, but beside it is an image of your car--from above! You can see the cars parked next to you and anything else--including children, Big Wheels, pets, boxes, planter boxes. It's almost impossible to run over something in this car.

I commuted in the Pathfinder, and that's where I got familiar with the interior. There are good sight lines, a pleasant, light-filled Almond space with soft-looking dash and doors (made of hard plastic), and jaunty angled door handles. The chrome-in-silver settings were posh. It sounds like a bad stereotype, but this new Pathfinder feels more feminine. It's a good chance that the driver will be female--a mom or just an adventurous woman with lots of friends--but there's nothing left that's truckish here.

Pathfinders come in four ascending levels: S, SV, SL, and Platinum. No car leaves the factory these days "stripped," but I know that my Platinum model was the big cheese here. If your interests are about moving people and gear, you don't need more than the S. It has a urethane wheel--the other models get leather. There's no Bluetooth. The seats are cloth in the S and SV--not leather. No satellite radio in the S. It doesn't get much in the way of option packages. But the Platinum is loaded--from it's 20-inch alloy wheels up.

Maybe "stripped" has taken on a new meaning. Every car has air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors and some kind of audio system these days. I'm guessing that they don't sell that many S models, with so many other modern conveniences like Bluetooth missing, but the price is surely a factor--both for affordability and for advertising. It starts at only $28,650. All four models offer two- or four-wheel drive, so the top model is the four-wheel-drive Platinum, like my test car--at $41,150. My tester came to $44,395 with its extra package and shipping.

That puts the Pathfinder in plenty of company. Built in Smyrna, Tennessee, it's big, comfy, attractive and wears the latest styling. Nissan has every reason to expect further success. I just wish it could get more than 20 miles per gallon.