ouray

ouray
It's me doing a little posing while taking a break at the Ouray, Colorado Jeep Jamboree in 1995.

Friday, December 31, 2010

6 Tips for Selling Your Used Car

OK, so shoot me. It's New Year's Eve and I have a more severe case of the lazies than usual. In that spirit, I am providing the link to a consumer piece I did for Interest.com. Used-car prices are at an all-time high. If you are considering selling a used vehicle, you might as well do everything possible to maximize your profit. Go to:  http://auto-loan.interest.com/auto-loan/how_to_get_most_for_used_car_1217.html.

And Happy New Year!!!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Caught in the Crossfire: Why Auburn and Alabama Fans Shouldn't Drink

I like NFL football, period. I'm a Steelers fan. I am only interested in NFL games not involving the Steelers in regard to the impact those games and the teams playing them have on the Steelers. I root for two teams on the weekends: the Steelers and whatever team is lined up against the Patriots. Hate those Patriots! But then who doesn't?

I'm not a sports-aholic. I only watch ESPN's Sports Center during NFL season, and then only at the gym while clocking miles on the step master. I find basketball, soccer and baseball as compelling to watch as C-SPAN. (Insert snore here.) I am truly mystified by people who devote hours to watching golf and bass fishing tournaments. How do they stay awake? I'm getting sleepy just writing about this.

Armed with the above information, it should come as no surprise that I am completely baffled by people rabidly loyal to a college franchise. Living in Greenville, SC, that means I am a fish out of water. It seems that nearly everyone here has a favorite SEC team. Many of these fans either attended the schools they root for, or have kids who did or do. SEC sports take a backseat to nothing in this area of the country. A Greenville bar's Saturday night's business can hang in the balance on whether the nearby Clemson Tigers win or lose the day's contest. And if the Tigers have some sort of a night game against the South Carolina Gamecocks, any establishment, other than a sports bar, might as well close for the night.

I tell you all of this as a preamble to the reporting of my experience last night. Being Wednesday, it was the weekly gathering of the Wednesday-Night Irregulars at Peddler Steak House. As its name implies, this group varies in size from week to week. Its numbers range from 2 or 3 to as many as 15, depending on people's schedules and whether or not any of the Florida members are in town. We congregate in the small lower bar to wolf down some great steak and laugh for two or three hours.

Among the more regular Irregulars is a couple who each graduated from Auburn. One of their three kids already graduated from Auburn and another is a senior there this year. They are fans. To put it in some perspective, the entire family of five is going to Phoenix to root for Auburn at the national championship game in a couple of weeks. I'll let your imagination put a price tag on this boondoggle that involves flying five adults from Greenville to Phoenix, putting them up for two nights, feeding them, sufficiently lubricating them and getting them seats in the stadium for the game. Can you say, cha-ching! Yes, they are serious fans.

As usual, the laughing and good-natured ribbing was in full swing as the gathering clocked its second hour at Peddler. My Auburn friends brought their Auburn senior with them. Other Irregulars were there as well. As often happens we had included one or two unsuspecting bar guests in our silliness. Things began going wrong when another guest sitting at a table in the corner overheard talk from our group referring to Auburn. As an Alabama supporter, he couldn't resist yelling, "Roll Tide!" You see, in the SEC Alabama is evidently the "New England Patriots" of the conference, universally disliked by just about everyone not a diehard Alabama fan.

A little innocuous back and forth ensued and the encounter would have ended peacefully enough right there, but then things deteriorated a little more when the Bama fan decided to approach our group. He and his wife had been in the bar earlier and been quite friendly. They eventually got a table in the dining room for dinner and then returned to the bar. They are neighbors of the Peddler's owner. This wasn't some rogue jerk off the street, but by this point he seemed to be under a full head of steam.

Our Auburn friends didn't do much to avoid the escalation. When Bama said he thought about rooting for Auburn in the championship game because of state pride (Auburn is in Alabama.), Mrs. Auburn announced that she could never support the Tide, no matter who they played. I think one of the Auburn folks said he or she would root for Afghanistan against Alabama. Our Bama friend then sang the Auburn fight song and Mrs. Auburn joined in. Bama asked, what shall we sing next? Mrs. Auburn responded by singing some anti-Alabama song. I don't remember the exact lyrics, but the gist of them was, "Bama sucks; no it really sucks."

Then the discussion went to which team (Auburn or Alabama) has the greatest number of future felons on its roster. And so on and so forth. Before Bama wandered back to his wife, he was yelling, "Go Ducks" (referring to the Oregon Ducks opposing Auburn in the big game), Mr. Auburn was red faced and looking for a weapon, and the rest of us were sitting quiet and wide-eyed like witnesses to a horrific train wreck.

Nope, I just don't get it. Passion is a good thing most of the time. We should all have some passion, but some things are more worthy of our passion than others.

I'm so glad I went to Wittenberg, a small Division III college with no national profile. I never have to worry about being in a bar and getting into a verbal brawl with a rabid Baldwin-Wallace alum about the outcome of the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. Yes, that's a real bowl game; look it up.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

BMW 1 Series: BMW Qualities in a Small Wrapper

As an entry-level luxury-sports coupe, the BMW 1 Series excels despite a price tag with the power to repel many potential buyers like a garlic necklace would a vampire. But its hefty price aside, the BMW 1 Series shines in its entry-level role because it is no pretender to the BMW brand. Armed with the same zippy engines that power the 3 Series and a suspension that vanquishes the physics of the tightest curve, the 1 Series is really a 3 Series Lite at heart.

BMW presented me with the $36,675 135i Coupe for this review. There is also a $29,975 128i Coupe. Drop-top versions of both are on the BMW menu, and they inflate the respective prices by about $4,000.

Although there are a few extras, such as 18-inch wheels versus 17-inch ones, as well as a sunroof and automatic climate control to be found on the 135i Coupe that are absent from the 128i, the key feature separating the two is under the hood. The 128i uses a 230-horsepower 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine to turn the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. Sprinting to 60 miles per hour from a standstill requires about six seconds. Bolted to the same manual tranny, the 300-horsepower turbocharged 3-liter inline six pushes the 135i to 60 miles per hour in about a second less.

Those not wishing to stir the transmission themselves can pony up $1,375 for the optional six-speed driver-shiftable automatic tranny. In addition to the manual setting, it offers two automatic modes ("Drive" and "Sport") reflecting an individual's driving style. Sport mode maps up-shifts at higher rpms. Opting for the automatic doesn't alter fuel economy that the EPA estimates at 18 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway for the 128i. The extra performance and driving fun generated by the 135i comes with a fuel economy cost, but not much of one. It shaves 3 mpg from the highway stat.

Exceedingly smooth, both inline engines deliver deliberate and aggressive acceleration. My test 1 Series had the manual transmission. Although the shift gates are close together, they are well defined. The shifting is precise. The clutch engages with a light touch. All of this contributes to a driving experience that is fun and satisfying.

Mitigating forward motion falls to ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels. The antilock system includes stability control, traction control, emergency braking preparation, emergency braking assist and electronic brakeforce distribution.

What would a BMW be without superior cornering acumen? Exhibiting BMW's fabled acuity in the twisties, the 1 Series earned the BMW "propeller" badge affixed to its snout. Comprising the independent suspension are MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link arrangement in the rear. For even sportier performance, BMW tweaks this setup in the 135i for more aggressive handling.

Chocked full of standard features, such as full power accessories, six airbags, leather-wrapped tilt-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, dual-zone climate controls, leatherette seating, and a 10-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary audio input jack, the cabin seats up to four. Actually the stingy bit of space allotted to rear-seat passengers may discourage all but the most flexible from entering its confines. If your regular occupant quotient is more than two, you might want to spend the extra bucks for the larger 3 Series. The trunk contains just a smidgen more than 13 cubic feet of cargo space.

The front bucket seats are comfortable enough, but if you intend tossing the 1 Series around some curves, you should consider the $1,300 M Sport Package. Not only does it include sport seats with meatier side bolsters, it features real wood interior trim, an "M" steering wheel, and special wheels and exterior trim.

Those familiar with the 3-Series will feel right at home in the 1 Series. The surroundings don't look or feel as top notch as in more expensive BMWs, but this is the anchor of the lineup after all. However there is a familiarity in the overall styling, as well as with the arrangement of the controls and switches. BMW interiors tend to be more utilitarian than plush; the 1 Series cabin doesn't deviate from this formula. While some luxury models would have you think you are piloting your living-room sofa down the boulevard, the 1 Series is more like taking your desk chair out for a spin.

Adding Boston Leather surfaces will tack $1,450 to the bottom line; while opting for the hard drive-based navigation system boosts the total price by another $2,100. The $3,400 Premium Package lumps together several popular amenities, such as eight-way power adjustable front seats, auto-dimming outboard and rearview mirrors, digital compass and the Boston Leather upholstery.

Thanks to the run-flat high-performance tires and the tauter sport suspension in my test 135i, the ride was somewhat stiff. Otherwise, the cabin is a rather pleasant place to be on a quick turn to the corner store or a multi-hour cross-country run. Other than the purr of the exhaust note under heavy acceleration, most noise generated outside the cabin stays there.

Any time a luxury marque attempts to broaden its appeal by offering a smaller, less-expensive model, it runs the risk of diluting the brand and cheapening its image; however, the temptation to coax younger, less well-heeled buyers into the brand is difficult to resist. Some efforts are more successful than others. In the case of BMW and its 1 Series, the exercise has produced a car that lives up to the brand with a price tag that reflects that. Pricey, yes; but what you get is a true BMW.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A House Divided: What Do You Mean You're Not a Steelers Fan?

Even when you spend some time with family members, you don't always know everything there is to know about them. When suddenly thrust into the proper environment, you may discover all sorts of disturbing facts about those you love. Such was the case last Sunday afternoon when my sister's family gathered at the home of one of her daughters who was celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary.

As family members trickled in, we gathered in the living room of her Albuquerque home where the flatscreen was tuned into Dish TV's RedZone. For the uninitiated, RedZone is a Dish TV channel that selectively shows only high-action plays from that Sunday afternoon's games. Dish bills the content as plays within a team's scoring Red Zone, but the action I saw encompassed a good deal more of the field. In any event, that's what was on the tube, er, flatscreen.

As people became involved in the ever-changing gridiron battles, talk turned to the impact -- or lack thereof -- these games had on favorite teams. The variety of favorite teams within my family, and even within households, was staggering. That my Steelers weren't universally embraced by this gathering was shocking, appalling and, dare I say, distressing.

Two of the non-Steelers fans there married into the family; so I can look upon them with a sadness something akin to the way you might view a refugee from some third-world backwater, who runs around naked because he has never seen a pair of pants. One roots for the Bears and the other for the Giants. There is another husband who married into the family who was absent; he cheers for the Cowboys. I feel sorry for all three.

For the others, however, I can't muster similar ecumenical feelings. This is a family with its roots firmly in western Pennsylvania. My sister and I were born in Erie, and my brother-in-law hails from Greenville, PA. That's Steelers country, period.

Counting noses revealed that Steelers fans far outnumbered the fans of any other team: six in all. In fact, only the Cowboys managed to draw more than one fan out of the remaining nine relatives. The Packers picked up a vote, too. My niece whose anniversary we were celebrating is a Steelers fan, but she is the only one in the house. Her husband is the Bears fan; while the two girls are split between the Eagles and the Vikings. The Eagles and the Vikings! Where did that come from? What has happened to competent child rearing in this country?
Some of the family seems to have no NFL ties. Of course one of these is 8 months old. His mom rolls her eyes and sighs whenever football is mentioned; so I see a golden opportunity to swell the family's Steelers ranks by one more as this Polamalu wannabe grows a little older. I'll make it my mission. If the parents aren't going to do it, putting these kids on the right track falls to Uncle Russ.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Back in the Saddle: Bringing a Great Week to an End

As I write this I am watching the sunrise from the window of my flight from Albuquerque to Atlanta. Delta upgraded me for both legs of my trip that will conclude in Charlotte. I did the math last night and realized that I will fall about 800 miles short of reaching Delta Platinum status this year. I can think of two California trips (one I canceled and the other I simply turned down) that would have easily put me over the top. Oh well…

Although a fair portion of the country is snowed in this morning, reports indicate that my flights today should be unaffected. Of course, I've learned never to count on the best-case scenario. Atlanta seems to be a magnet for the unexpected. If things go terribly wrong there, I can always get a car and drive home.

Longer than traditional, my Christmas trip to my sister's was an 8-day respite comprised mainly of lounging around, reading and eating everything that wasn't nailed down. Christmas is a big deal at her house. Decorating begins mid-November. My brother-in-law works tirelessly setting up a very intricate multi-tiered train layout under the tree. My oldest niece, who lives with them, is responsible for the tree. The outside of the house isn't quite the Griswold's, but I wouldn't hope to estimate the number of lights at play. My sister handles most of the smaller decorations arranged throughout the house. Baking and candy making also begin about the same time as the decorating. I resign myself to gaining no less than five pounds each Christmas visit.

This holiday was notable because the entire family was home. A bit overwhelming for a guy who lives by himself, the crowd gathered for Christmas dinner was loud, enthusiastic and half crazed. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

So as I head home, I am both a little sad and a bit anxious to get back into my comfortable routine. I actually have a work assignment that needs completing before the 31st, and that will occupy my daytime hours. I will also drag my bloated butt into the gym. After eight days of uncontrolled binge eating, I can't imagine how tough it will be to return to my workout routine.

With my next potential vacation not scheduled until my annual trip to South Florida for St. Paddy's Day, it's going to be a long, chilly winter.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pickled on Christmas

It was Christmas dinner at the Walton's. More people than chairs or space available at the collection of tables scattered about my sister's house resulted in a couple of people milling around with a full dinner plate in one hand and a fork in the other. More or less this was the traditional Christmas meal my family has had for at least five generations. It was turkey, chestnut stuffing, real mashed potatoes, Cope's dried corn, cranberry sauce, candied yams and gallons of artery-clogging gravy.

My sister's family insists on adding olives – both green and black – pickles and pickled jalapeno peppers, she lives in New Mexico after all. I'm not thrilled with their tinkering with the menu, but my mouth is usually too full of stuffing and gravy to offer objection. The 18 of us made quick work of the holiday spread. Hours of preparation culminated in a feeding frenzy that lasted maybe 35 minutes. The wreckage left in the wake of this chow down was biblical. Fortunately the contingent of teenagers in this family is large and motivated. They attacked the cleanup with nearly the same enthusiasm as the gift opening a few hours earlier.

As much fun as it was to have everyone under one roof. I shed no tears when the last of them proffered hugs all around and headed for home. The resulting silence was deafening. The age spread had been 74 yrs. to 8 mos. The noise had been at coliseum-like levels for most of the day. I was ready for some peace and quiet.

Today we are doing it all over again as the same crowd gathers at the home of one of my nieces to celebrate her wedding anniversary. And people wonder why I drink…  

Friday, December 24, 2010

A New Holiday Tradition: Margaritas and Enchiladas

Feliz Navidad!

We have introduced a new holiday tradition into our family: a visit to Sadie's, my favorite Mexican restaurant. What does Mexican food have to do with Christmas, you may wonder. Well, nothing. But any excuse to eat the best Mexican food I've ever had and consume a pitcher or two of El Presidente Margaritas is a good excuse. In this case, that excuse is Christmas.

We were supposed to convene this gathering last Sunday; however after Delta canceled my flight from Minneapolis to Albuquerque, delaying my arrival by about six hours, it had to be postponed to Thursday evening. It was well worth the wait.

We actually had the inaugural Sadie's family gathering more than a year ago during a mid-year visit of mine. That time there were more than 20 of us. It was a pull-out-all-the-stops party that left more than a couple of bodies on the beach. Last night's event was subdued by the standards established at the first Sadie's gathering. It was fun nonetheless.

I have been a fan of Sadie's since my first visit 15 years ago. Then it was located inside a bowling alley. Today it and a second branch have their own stand-alone facilities. Because the Mexican restaurants I've been to in South Florida and South Carolina serve food that is only loosely related to Mexican fare, I can't come up with an accurate example with which to compare Sadie's. It is "real" Mexican food. It is hot and perfectly flavored.

The margaritas, well, they have put many a good man (and woman) on his ass. Who needs eggnog? Enough said.

So, it is my hope that getting the family together at Sadie's will be an ongoing holiday tradition. In itself, it is reason enough to make the cross-country haul.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Grown Ups: My Nomination for One of the Worst Movies of 2010

Last night I wasted 102 minutes of the limited time I have left on this earth watching the Adam Sandler vehicle Grown Ups. This is 102 minutes I will never get back. It was time better invested watching CSPAN or in navel contemplation. That many people still serve turkey on Christmas day somehow renders watching this film during the holiday season appropriate. Simply put, there is not one single laugh in the entire movie. Nada, zip, zilch, zero, goose egg. The only positive in this narrative is that I rented Grown Ups at a Red Box, spending only a buck. At that, I was still bilked out of about 95 cents.

It is stunning that you can assemble a cast composed of Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, Chris Rock, et al and still not manage to create one chuckle – let alone a giggle, guffaw or belly laugh. Amazing. Take Chris Rock, for example. Here is one of the truly funny standup comedians of our time. A guy who can be counted on to deliver laughs in rapid fire from the time he steps on stage, couldn't inspire one smile in this turkey of a movie. Just seeing him on camera in Lethal Weapon 4, made me laugh. Nearly every line he delivered in that action film was funny. Not so in Grown Ups. through which he often looked like a deer caught in headlights.

The plot, such as it is, follows a group of middle schoolers, who played together on a championship basketball team, as they gather 30 years later for their coach's funeral. Are you laughing yet? They all stay in the same big lake house (where they evidently hung out during their high school years) for the weekend of the funeral. Apparently the comedy is supposed to come from them falling back into their adolescent relationships colliding with their adult personas. Of course their families accompany them on this journey, which contributes mightily to the humor. Ha, ha.

There is little question in my mind that Sandler simply called several of his friends and told them he knew a way for all of them to have a $500,000 payday for a few days work. Not one of them seemed to have based their decision to participate on reading the script. This was just a bunch of pals having some fun making a movie that they figured people would plunk down $10 to see based on the strength of the cast. It worked. I rented the damn thing.

In the words of Johnny Carson, "I've seen better film on the top of hot chocolate."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Audi S4: A Driving Experience of the First Order

The Audi S4 has more horsepower and torque, better fuel economy, and a few more standard features than the BMW 335i xDrive for about $3,000 more. Read my review by clicking on:
MyCarData - Audi S4 - high performance and high style

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jaguar XFR: Beauty and the Beast

Fawning automotive press can't seem to say enough great things about the Jaguar XFR. I join the positive chattering with my review. Check it out at www.car-data.com/jaguar-xfr-supercharged-fun-from-jaguar-p760.htm.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Laid Back in New Mexico

Sitting in my sister's living room in Los Lunas, N. Mex., I am already in leisure mode. How, you might ask, do I tell my usual do-little-to-nothing mode from my leisure mode? To an outside observer, I grant that the differences seem slight. But like a duck moving across a pond, what seems like an effortless task on the surface requires an explosive effort of swimming feet below the water line. I may not look like I'm doing much of anything as I work, and certainly my checking account reflects this, but my mind is always churning. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

In any event, I am in leisure mode. Yesterday's blood pressure-inflating flying experience is now a distant memory. I did take advantage of the delay to find and watch the first half of the Steelers game on a TV in the bar of Chili's at Minneapolis airport. There my Delta-provided $10 lunch voucher rapidly disappeared under the weight of $8 draft beers. It must be nice to transform 80 cents of beer into more than a $7 profit. The joys of having a captive customer pool!

My revised connecting flight left Minneapolis on time. The two-and-a-half-hour flight was spent depleting the plane's supply of Woodford Reserve. I love being upgraded. Delta is also running a promo for free WiFi on its flights in December. I took advantage of that to keep track of the last few minutes of the Steelers game. A disappointing loss to the Jets that I hope isn't a preview of their first playoff game against a top-notch team. The offense played well and the loss may say more about the defense without Polamalu than about the current state of the offense.

So here I am at my sister's. Most of the discussion this morning has been about dinner plans. The ideal way to spend the first few hours of a vacation.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Adrift in Minneapolis: Delta Fails Me Again!

Ah, the best laid plans…

As I write this I am marooned at the Minneapolis airport. Weather in Minneapolis, and around the country for that matter, is nearly perfect. As we approached Minneapolis and I saw that indeed the weather wouldn't be a factor in an on-time departure for my flight to Albuquerque, I was elated. I had trepidations about flying through this snow-bound city on my way to my sister's; however, it was by far the cheapest route Delta had to get me there for Christmas. I rolled the dice.

I was further encouraged when I got to the gate and the plane was sitting there, begging to be flown. The flight crew walked down the gateway and then promptly walked back off. Some sort of mechanical problem caused Delta to cancel the flight.

If you follow this blog with any degree of regularity, you may well be aware that this is my second experience with a canceled flight in three weeks. My enthusiasm for Delta is waning.

I immediately called the Delta number for Sky Miles members. I was told I had two choices: Flying through Salt Lake and arriving in Albuquerque at , or waiting for the next direct flight and arriving at . Because roughly 15 members of my family were to be waiting for me at my favorite Mexican restaurant at , neither of these options was particularly appealing. Either choice was less than acceptable. My decision came down to one factor: Delta could protect my first-class upgrade on the direct flight, but not on the two legs of the earlier flight. I chose the first-class option.

So here I am kicking around the Minneapolis airport for five or six hours. Lots of shops; not much in the way of restaurants. Nothing in the way of sports bars. I want to be in Albuquerque, at Sadie's, drinking margaritas.

Not a good beginning for my holiday vacation, this event won't sour the rest of my trip. I have my $10 lunch voucher and will probably drink that. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find the Steelers game on any of the TVs in the airport bars. Vikings? What the hell is a Viking?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Top Hat and Work Boots: GMC Sierra Denali 2500 Crew Cab

If you are going to pull a few stumps or schlep a load of manure, you might as well do it in style. I highly recommend the GMC Sierra Denali 2500 Crew Cab. Check out my review at www.car-data.com/gmc-sierra-denali-crew-cab-p1171-104.htm.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Atlanta or Bust: A Soggy Saga of Motoring Angst

I belong to the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association. "Greater" was inserted into the organization's name to imply that even a struggling journalist 150 miles away in Greenville, SC is qualified for membership. (We also have members as far flung as Nashville Tennessee -- a much more liberal interpretation of "Greater" than Greenville.) Not only do I belong to GAAMA, I am on its board. Not only am I on its board, I'm senior vice president. Yes, it's a lofty title; but so is "Queen of England" and she doesn't do much of anything either. We have another VP, Ryan Rees, who does the real heavy lifting. I'm just sort of window dressing. They trot me out every once in a while to make a pronouncement such as, "Pay your dues," or "Make sure you get your valet-parking claim check validated before leaving the restaurant," stuff like that.

Toyota sponsored this year's GAAMA Christmas party. Yes, we still call it a Christmas party. Scheduled to begin at 6 PM at a restaurant in Atlanta, it wasn't a must-attend sort of event; but I felt it my duty to put in at least a cameo. After all, these folks did go to the polls and vote for me. From my back door to the party location is roughly a 2-hour drive. To compensate for the weather, unforeseen problems and Atlanta rush-hour traffic, I left home at 3:30 for the event's 6 PM kickoff.

Unrelenting rain fell for the entire drive. About 45 miles from the restaurant, traffic on I-85 came to a complete halt. This happened to me once before during an early-morning run to Atlanta's airport. Traffic just stopped and sat. After about 10 minutes, it was as though someone shot off a starter's pistol; the entire clog of stalled cars just took off. This incident was a repeat of my earlier experience. As I sat there, though, I contemplated turning around and heading for home. I had already suffered a bout of buyer's remorse as I sat eating lunch at home before embarking on this trip. I was ambivalent about going and probably should have listened to my gut.

However, I pressed on. Big mistake. I-85 was typically congested, particularly for the 20 or so miles between Exit 115, where the highway widens from two lanes to five or six lanes, and I-285. I had no idea what a mess I-285 is under good weather conditions at 5:30 on a weekday afternoon. In the rain it's a sluggish, hair-pulling mess to the tenth power. The GPS nav unit in the Scion tC I was driving sent me up the on-ramp to I-285 West. It was like hitting a wall.

Hands on the dashboard clock moved, pages ripped off the calendar, the wheels of my tC inched along. Traveling the necessary 18 miles or so of I-285 required nearly 70 minutes. Seventy minutes of my life that I will never see again. Lost as last year's Easter Egg, the nav unit then couldn't seem to locate the restaurant's address once I was within about a mile of it. It directed me around the same square block four or five times before I realized it was clueless. Over the years I have learned not to trust directions, not to trust Mapquest and not to trust a GPS. Always have a backup!

I had printed out directions posted by the restaurant. I finally pulled over, switched on the overhead light and read the printed directions. I then drove back to the closest landmark on the printed directions I remembered seeing, and followed the printed instructions to the restaurant. About two blocks from the final destination, the GPS regained consciousness and announced the address was coming up on the left.

I arrived at the party a few minutes after 7:00, and was back on the road home at 9:15. Total time for the drive back to Greenville: 2 hours 5 minutes.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Verizon Blinks: Striking a Blow for the Little Guy

For those of you on the edge of your seat, or who put in a sleepless night fretting over my $35 dispute with Verizon, please relax. In an e-mail from Verizon's Elaine (Evidently Shaniqua was taken off the case.), I was informed that the $35 credit has been made to my current balance due.

Not sufficient to send me out to my driveway to perform the happy-boy dance -- it is 32 degrees and raining out there after all -- I am pleased, nonetheless, with the outcome and the extra $35 I will have in my pocket as I head into the new year.

Although this wasn't exactly a Rosa Parks moment, it was a small victory for the "little guy," a category into which I am destined to always be lumped.

I am pondering what to do with my windfall. Should I spend it on an evening out in celebration of my triumph? I could put it into my savings account....nah. Maybe invest it? Everyone seems to be abuzz about gold. Now I have more insight into the complicated decisions Bill Gates faces daily.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Texas Cagematch with Verizon

I am in a running battle with Verizon. I switched my cell service from AT&T to Verizon in late August. I wasn't particularly unhappy with AT&T, but they don't offer a full-keyboard phone that doesn't have a $15 to $20 extra data fee per month attached to it. Your 12-year old probably has a more advanced phone than I do. I'm not interested in surfing the Web, watching a movie or accessing my e-mails from my phone. I want to make calls, receive calls and do a little texting. That's it. I know, I'm a dinosaur.

In any event, AT&T doesn't, or at least didn't in late August, offer a cell phone with a complete keyboard that didn't require extra bucks for a data plan. I had been receiving some Verizon solicitations; so I got online (using my old-fashioned desktop PC) and checked out what they had to offer.

Indeed they did have an LG model with a full keyboard that doesn't require an extra data plan. The phone was free with a two-year service contract at a rate about the same as I was paying at AT&T. They also advertised free activation. I thought, why not?

I wound up getting a call from a telesalesperson to hammer out the details. Although this took more time than my last approval for a home-equity line of credit, I put the sales person on speaker phone and worked as the clock ticked away. After about 20 minutes of this nonsense we reached the summarizing portion of the sales call. I glazed over as the sales person reiterated everything we had discussed only a few minutes earlier. Among the information she restated was that activation was free. I would be charged for it upfront, but the $35 fee would be credited back to me on the third monthly bill, if not before.

I have the third monthly bill in my hand and the $35 credit isn't on it, nor has it been on either of the previous two bills. Hey, 35 bucks is 35 bucks. I e-mailed Verizon's customer service on 12/14 requesting an update on the credit. My answer arrived on 12/15 from Verizon's Shaniqua informing me that after an exhaustive search of my records, she can find nothing about waiving the $35 activation fee. Case closed; get lost; don't let the door hit you in the fanny on your way back to AT&T.

I replied to Shaniqua's e-mail suggesting that she probably could have cut her research time simply by reviewing Verizon's marketing promotions during August, or going back to the recording of my conversation with the telesalesperson that Verizon claimed to be making. Either avenue would support my claim.

Negotiations are ongoing....

Monday, December 13, 2010

South Florida Boondoggle: All Good Things Must End

If you want a shock to your system, weather a 45-degree temperature drop driving the 10 hours from South Florida to Greenville, SC. Our intrepid crew wasn't exactly dressed in shorts and flip-flops for the drive north on Sunday, but we were quite comfortable in the 75-degree morning as we sipped coffee at Bob and Meg's poolside bar. We were loaded up and on the road by 8:30 AM (A late departure for me; but filled to the brim with holiday spirit, I decided to let the ladies sleep in. I run a tight and uncompromising ship on these overland excursions.).

Just south of Jacksonville, we encountered horrific wind gusts and driving rain. Because it was noon-thirty and I was preparing to turn the afternoon driving duties over to someone else so I could follow the Steelers during their 1 PM game, we pulled into a Wendy's for lunch. I even capitulated and let the group eat inside the restaurant rather than in the van. I hate wasting time on these trips. Am I a good guy or what?

Fuel stops, unscheduled bathroom breaks for the girls and the 45-minute lunch stop all contributed to a 7:30 PM arrival time at my house, the staging area for this boondoggle. Even the Steelers 23-7 divisional win over the Bengals wasn't sufficient to warm me as we dismounted the van. I didn't take a jacket with me, so I faced the 30-degree temp in my shirt sleeves. My blood has indeed thickened during my three years in SC, but it would have had to be the consistency of concrete to make that sub-freezing temp OK.

It was a great extended weekend in Delray Beach, and made more so because our Austin-buddy Winker was still in the area. Bob and Meg have the consummate guest home, and we took full advantage of it. At the Whales Rib, Mary rolled out the red carpet and made sure we had a great time. The ideal trip for launching into the Christmas season, it was a hard to bring it to a close!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Five Cars to Take the Bite Out of Winter

For many buying a car is an emotional purchase. In that spirit I've put together a short list of cars to raise your spirit this winter. Any of these will shine sufficiently bright to beat back the winter doldrums. For my list of five go to www.bankrate.com/finance/auto/5-hot-cars-for-winter-fun-and-frolic-1.aspx.

Friday, December 10, 2010

On the Road with A Toyota Sienna

I made the 10-hour slog from South Carolina to Delray Beach, Fla. Thursday with some of the Wednesday-Night Irregulars from Peddler Steakhouse. As someone who has made that trip solo more than a dozen times, doing it with a car-load of people is a culture shock. Anticipating several unscheduled pit stops for the ladies, we left Greenville at to ensure we arrived at City Cellar in West Palm Beach to meet up with South Florida friends at . My fears, however, were unfounded. We only made one pit stop that wasn't mated to a fuel stop. We walked into the Cellar at .

A few local friends were there to meet and greet us, including future-Greenville resident Erick. In fact, Greenville, SC was the theme of the long weekend as we spent time intentionally or accidentally with all sorts of folks with Greenville connections. This 90-minute diversion completed we headed to Delray and the home of part-time Greenville residents Bob and Meg, where we bunked for this trip. The evening was capped with a lasagna dinner and copious amounts of wine.

My first choice for a trip vehicle was one of GM's long-wheelbase SUVs, like the Suburban. A few years ago this request would have been effortlessly met. No so these days. GM doesn't have such a vehicle in its East-coast press fleet. My fallback vehicle was a Toyota Sienna minivan. This turned out to be an ideal substitute. It's more than 16 cubic feet of cargo space with the third-row seat in place was more than enough to swallow the luggage five of us would need to see us through four days.

Moreover, the third row seat has about 30-inches of legroom, which is plenty to accommodate an adult. The EPA-rated fuel economy is 22 mpg on the highway. With five of us and our luggage the Sienna delivered 21.5 mpg. It turned out to be an excellent road vehicle.

Our three-day drinking contest will come to a close on Sunday when we make the drive back to sub-20-degree temps. All good things must come to an end….

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chevrolet Malibu: Better Than Good Enough

GM got serious about the midsize sedan market with the Chevrolet Malibu. It does everything it needs to do to qualify as world class. It may not be the best, but it's certainly good enough to go toe-to-toe with the segment's top-flight competitors. Read my review at www.car-data.com/chevy-malibu-go-hard-or-go-home-p1048-100.htm.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Seven Cars for Lottery Winners

There is nothing wrong with dreaming a little and in that spirit, I have assembled seven cars to consider if you win this week's big lottery. I only included cars with a 2011 model-year designation. You may disagree with my choices, but hey, this is my dream. To see the list, go to www.bankrate.com/finance/auto/7-luxury-cars-for-a-lavish-lottery-winner-1.aspx.

Monday, December 6, 2010

First Impression: 2011 Hyundai Elantra

Received my first taste of the 2011 Hyundai Elantra at its press preview in San Diego on December 3. Here's the 411: It's big enough on the inside for the EPA to classify it as a midsize car; yet by its outside dimensions, it's still a compact. The tongue-in-cheek theme of the press program was "Save the Asterisks." This to highlight that every new Elantra earned an EPA highway mileage rating of 40 mpg without any equivocation. That is, there are no asterisks leading you to tiny mouse print qualifying the 40 mpg claim. In fact, fuel economy is up 18 percent over the last generation Elantra.

Reflecting Hyundai's "Fluidic Sculpture" design concept, Elantra's skin is a collection of angles and chiseled lines. Likewise the interior is a far cry from some of the cookie-cutter cabins in this segment. It is handsomely styled and well assembled.

Leading the segment in power-to-weight ratio, the Elantra uses a peppy 148-horsepower 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine to turn its front wheels via a six-speed transmission. The tranny can either be manual or a driver-shiftable automatic.

Some key highlights include four-wheel antilock disc brakes with traction control and stability control, Bluetooth cell phone connectivity and voice recognition, six airbags, available heated rear seats, and a six-speaker Audio system with CD player, iPod integration and auxiliary input jacks.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Midnight Train from San Diego

I'm not a fan of red-eye flights; I doubt that I hold the minority opinion on this. Although I have no trouble sleeping on flights and am often asleep before the plane is finished taking off, I can't sleep on a plane at night – even on a red eye, even when seated in first or business class. Coming back from Asia, coming back from Hawaii, coming back from California, I can't sleep. So when faced with a red eye back from San Diego, I chose to get sufficiently lubricated to put myself into a chardonnay-induced coma.

I was at the press launch of the redesigned Hyundai Elantra (more on it to come). The Hyundai travel folks made arrangements for me to stay in my room until my limo to the airport. They also kept the hospitality suite open until , a perfect storm.

The bartender in the hospitality suite was a chatty character. I carried a glass of wine back to my room and got a little work done. That glass polished off, I returned to hospitality for another, and carried it back to my room. My work finished, I headed back to hospitality and Michael opened a new bottle. I was the only journalist there. He admonished me that once a bottle was opened, he had to charge Hyundai for the entire bottle. I wanted Hyundai to get its money's worth. During the next hour I finished it. By this time he had broken down the bar and it was about . I went to my room, retrieved my bag and proceeded to the lobby to catch my limo. So far everything was going according to plan.

I arrived at Delta's ticketing, and not finding my flight on the departure board, bellied up to the counter. I was told my flight had been canceled. What! Why didn't Delta call me? I asked. They have my contact info. The counter agent, Yolanda, told me she didn't know why I had not been contacted, but should have been. She went on to tell me that because fog was expected that night, Delta canceled the flight. Despite having a load on, I was smiling, jovial and much more pleasant than Delta had any reason to expect. I told her that I had left a paid-for room at the Lodge at Torrey Pines to catch this flight. Had Delta notified me, I would have happily stayed there and come to the airport in the morning. She told me I was booked on the flight. I asked her what Delta expected me to do for the next 10 hours. She responded that Delta bore no responsibility for my being stranded because it was a weather incident. I gave her my best "you've got to be kidding" look.

Yolanda excused herself and disappeared through the door into the back. The minutes ticked by. She finally returned about 15 min later. She gave me a voucher for the airport Sheraton and another good for $7 toward breakfast. OK, it wasn't the Lodge at Torrey Pines, but it sure beat trying to sleep in a chair in the airport. The Sheraton was better than decent, the bed comfortable and the room quiet. I slept like a baby.

Upon arriving at the airport the next morning, I stopped at McDonalds for my free Egg McMuffin and decafe. I already had my cup of high test in the hotel room. I was in the aisle seat in the very last row of the plane. No biggie. After spending the flight out with a little kid kicking the back of my seat, I was happy that no one was behind me. I even managed to talk a free vodka and orange juice out of the flight attendant assigned to the back of the plane. I'm going to arrive in Greenville about 9 hours later than originally scheduled, but there are worse things. In the meantime, I'm going to write Delta a letter that will convey my displeasure at not being notified of the canceled flight and then praising Yolanda, whose employee number I coaxed out of her. Ah, the tribulations of a frequent flyer….

Friday, December 3, 2010

Flying Infants

I spent four and a half hours on a Delta plane from Atlanta to San Diego yesterday. I was first disappointed that security at the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport, where my travel originated, hasn't changed. I knew there wasn't going to be a "happy ending" involved, but I was looking for my federal government-sponsored foreplay at the hands of a TSA agent. No such luck. I had donned clean underwear yesterday morning in anticipation of being manhandled in the security line. Please, touch my junk! Anyone? Anyone?

I suppose I'll have to wait for my return flight from San Diego this evening.

What prompted this writing, though, was the family occupying the row behind me on the Atlanta-San Diego flight: a mom, dad, a boy of maybe 4 years and a sub-two-year-old of in-determinate gender. Had this been a white-bread family from Dayton, I probably could have made a stab at whether the younger child was male or female, but this was a family of India descent and the kid was dressed in a way that didn't allow for someone unfamiliar with their traditional garb to make a gender guess. Gender is really irrelevant, but I strive to be accurate.

Of course the younger child spent the trip on the laps of Mom and Dad alternating from one to the other. Thus he/she occupied the four and a half hours – five hours if you count taxiing – alternately kicking my seatback and the seatback of the lady sitting next to me. Truth be told, this lady suffered less than I did based on the six times I had to get up to let her go to the bathroom. She probably spent 45 min of the flight powdering her nose. But I suspect I dealt with the problem for about 2 hours.

This episode aggravated one of my pet peeves: Kids 2 years old and under flying free on the lap of an adult. According to FAA rules during take off and landing, it is too dangerous for a woman to hold her purse on her lap; or for anyone to hold a five-pound laptop computer (even stowing it in seat pocket in front of them is verboten); yet, it's perfectly safe to hold a 20-pound squalling, struggling 2-year old. How does that work? How is that justified? Isn't a child just as likely as a laptop to fly out of someone's arms during a rough landing?

And finally, as someone who clocks a lot of air miles each year, I can't figure out how it is right that someone who paid nothing for a ticket gets to annoy someone who did for the duration of a flight? It's outrageous enough that some 400-pound, impulse-control-challenged tub can buy the seat next to me with his rolls of fat cascading over the armrests, pushing me into the aisle or against the bulkhead; but at least he's a paying passenger. Maybe he should be paying more, or I should receive a discount for sitting next to him, but he is a paying passenger. This projectile in waiting, kicking my seatback for two hours, didn't pay a penny, not a single penny, to be on the plane. I take issue with that.

Every passenger, regardless of age, should have his own seat. Period.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

2011 Chevy Cruze: First Impression

Just finished a four-and-a-half-hour round-trip slog to Atlanta for a GAAMA board of directors meeting. That's the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association for the uninitiated. It was a bit of a culture shock. I drove over in a 2011 GMC Sierra 2500 HD Denali Crew Cab. A 397-horsepower 6.6-liter V8 turbodiesel percolated under the hood that generated 765 lb-ft of stump-pulling peak torque. This truck is a beast by any yardstick.

I made the return trip in the all-new Chevy Cruze. It was the top-of-the-line LTZ version. With $870 worth of options, including the upgraded 9-speaker Pioneer audio system, it was priced at $23,565. I was more than impressed by its quickness, ride quality and stability. Oh, and it's quiet, too. GM's 138-horsepower 1.4-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder turns the front wheels via a 6-speed automatic transmission. A neatly styled cabin had leather seats and automatic climate control in addition to full power accessories and a leather-wrapped tilt/telescopic steering wheel. Loaded with quality materials and neatly assembled, the cabin would be right at home in an Acura. Fuel economy is an impressive 24 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. Sweet!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Video Tips on How to Test Drive a New Car

With a face made for radio, I provide some tips on how to test drive a new car. Make some popcorn, grab a beer, and try not to laugh. Check it out at www.bankrate.com/finance/video/video-how-to-test-drive-a-new-car.aspx.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Super Bowl Reality Check: Steelers Can't Get There 3 Points at a Time

Steelers squeaker win over the Bills in overtime speaks volumes about the Steelers' lackluster offense. If you want to know why the Steelers won't be vying for a seventh Super Bowl win in Arlington in February, find a video of their game against the Buffalo Bills. Watch a first half in which their offense should have put 21 or more points on the board, but settled for 13.

In the first half the Steelers controlled the ball for a whopping 24 minutes. They gained 225 total yards as opposed to 51 yards by the Bills. They had 8 third-down conversions. Yet, they only managed to score 13 points. What is wrong with this picture?

This is an offense that can't seem to score touchdowns even as it manhandled one of the least effective defenses in the NFL. After a brilliant opening drive that consisted primarily of Rashard Mendenhall pretty much running wherever he wanted, the Steelers offense checked out. It was as though they just wanted to prove to themselves and the fans that they could score a touchdown; and that achieved, they simply fell apart.

Yes, new kicker Shaun Suisham was 4 for 4 field goals, including the game-winning score, but we're talking Super Bowl. It's tough to beat a Super Bowl-caliber team when you are putting up points 3 at a time versus your opponent putting up 7.

With such a dominant first-half performance by the Steelers offense, this game never should have been in question. That the Bills returned to the field for the second half clearly more focused and intense than the Steelers, shouldn't have been an issue. The Steelers had simply missed the opportunity to put the game away in the first half. If it were not for dazzling play in the fourth quarter and overtime on the part of the Steelers defense -- led by Troy Polamalu -- Pittsburgh would be sitting on a 7-and-4 record rather than 8 and 3.

Next week they face the Baltimore Ravens, and in what may be their most crucial game of the season, the Steelers must get the ball over the goal line. Some how, some way, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians needs to coach some touchdowns out of this offense. His success at doing so has been sporadic at best so far this season.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chevy Malibu - Go hard or go home

Chevy Malibu - Go hard or go home

Top 10 Vehicles for Tailgating

It may be a little late for the 2010 football season, but I've put together my picks for the 10 best tailgating vehicles. These are the cars and trucks well suited for those pre-game parking-lot parties. Check them out at www.bankrate.com/auto/10-best-vehicles-for-fall-tailgating.aspx.

Friday, November 19, 2010

My Tips on How to Research Auto Insurance

You can save money on auto insurance simply by doing a little research. If you purchased your current policy by calling a phone number posted at the end of a TV commercial, chances are you are paying too much. Read my suggestions from the experts on how to research auto insurance to maximize your coverage while getting the lowest premium possible at www.bankrate.com/finance/insurance/how-to-research-car-insurance.aspx.  

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Hows and Whys of Vehicle Gap Insurance

Gap auto insurance is one of those expenses that is easy to ignore, but is well worth cost if you suffer the total loss of a vehicle. Only in an auto loan's sunset period do you stand any chance of collecting enough from your insurance company to payoff the loan in the event of a total loss. Get all the facts on gap insurance at: www.bankrate.com/finance/insurance/car-gap-insurance-is-it-right-for-you.aspx.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Get the Best Price on a New Car

To get the lowest price on a new car, you need only be armed with a bit of knowledge and the "right" attitude when you step onto the new-car dealer's lot. Doing the appropriate research before negotiations begin is invaluable. Also key to avoid overpaying for a vehicle is the determination to walk out the showroom door if the dealer is unwilling to meet your offer. More from me about the critical information you need and how to mentally prepare yourself for the negotiation at www.bankrate.com/finance/auto/4-tips-for-negotiating-a-new-car-price.aspx.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Deciphering Crash Test Scores: Seeing Stars

If you've shopped for a new car lately, you may have noticed on the window price sticker a box called "Government Safety Ratings." It's filled with stars next to descriptions of different sorts of crashes.

You may have thought, what do these stars mean and how do I use them?

Here's a rule of thumb for car shopping when safety is the primary concern: Bigger is usually better.

Yes, that's right. Both of our safety sources agreed that all the crash test scores in the world don't trump the basic truth about walking away from a crash: The larger the vehicle, the better chance you have.

In a crash, size does matter. All other things being equal, safety is basically a product of size and weight. This is particularly true in frontal crashes that account for half of crash fatalities.

Of course with SUVs, there are rollover issues; however, in accidents between two vehicles or a vehicle and an inanimate object, big wins the day.

A full-size sedan provides more protection in a crash than a subcompact, and a full-size SUV provides more protection than a full-size sedan, and so forth.

The question then becomes, which models within the different size classes are the safest? This is where test scores take on real meaning.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) through its New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP, performs a series of crash tests and, based on the results, awards from one to five stars with five stars being best.

Here's our second rule of thumb: If safety is the primary consideration when buying a new vehicle, never settle for less than five stars for frontal crashes or four stars for side-impact crashes.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and based on 2007 statistics (the latest available), 78 percent of all fatalities are a result of either a frontal or side-impact crash.

Why do we recommend five stars for a frontal crash and only four stars for a side-impact crash? Although NHTSA uses its system of stars throughout its tests, they translate into different information from test to test.

The compete list of stars and their meanings can be found in the FAQ section of http://www.safercar.gov/. This is also where you can find the scores for all the vehicles NCAP has tested.

In frontal crashes:

***** = 10 percent or less chance of serious injury.
**** = 11 percent to 20 percent chance of serious injury.

In side-impact crashes:

***** = 5 percent or less chance of injury.
**** = 6 percent to 10 percent chance of injury.

We believe that when safety is the primary criteria when purchasing a new vehicle, the chance for serious injury in a crash shouldn't exceed 10 percent.

The IIHS attributes 17 percent of all crash fatalities to rollovers.

NHTSA's five-star system takes on yet another meaning when applied to rollover crashes.

With regard to rollover crashes the stars don't correlate to the potential for injury, but to the potential for rolling over.

Here again we believe that only vehicles receiving the five-star rating should be considered when safety is the primary criteria.
According to NHTSA, all vehicles have about a 10 percent chance of rolling over in a crash. In rollover testing the scores for rollover potential are:

***** = 10 percent.
**** = 11 percent to 20 percent.
*** = 21 percent to 30 percent.
** = 31 percent to 40 percent.
* = 41 percent to 50 percent.

To put a finer point on rollover scores, the rollover rating may also include a bar graph with a diamond in it that provides a more precise rollover score between increments for comparison shopping.

If safety is your primary concern in purchasing a new vehicle, your research isn't finished.

The IIHS also performs a number of crash tests and awards safety designations of Good, Acceptable, Marginal and Poor based on a vehicle's crashworthiness.

When safety is the key criteria for purchasing a new vehicle, only those testing as Good should be considered.

On the surface the tests these two organizations perform appear to duplicate one another, but this is not the case.

Russ Rader, spokesman for the IIHS explained, "The tests are really complimentary because by-in-large, they are measuring different crash scenarios."

For example, the NHTSA frontal test is a full-width event crashing a vehicle head on into a stationary barrier, spreading the force of impact across the entire width of the vehicle.

The IIHS version also uses a stationary barrier, but the crash is offset, so that only part of the front end absorbs all of the force.

In side-impact tests, the NHTSA uses a battering ram barrier about the height of a passenger car bumper; the IIHS places the battering ram at about the bumper height of a full-size pickup or SUV.

The IIHS rollover scores provide methodology for rating a vehicle's crash worthiness in a rollover as opposed to NHTSA rating rollover probability.

The IIHS also performs an additional crash test rating head protection and whiplash injury in rear-end collisions.

Making it easy for consumers to find its highest-rated vehicles, the IIHS publishes its Top Safety Picks 2009 on its Web site at http://www.iihs.org/. It is comprised of vehicles scoring a Good in all categories, and also featuring electronic stability control.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

American-Made Cars Gaining Popularity in Recent Poll

Rasmussen Reports, an electronic media company specializing in public opinion polling, just released the results of a survey indicating that 41 percent of U.S. adults say that they look for an American-built car first when shopping for a new car. This shows a substantial shift from June, 2008 when that number was just 32 percent. At that time 51 percent of responders said that "getting the best deal" was their first concern. That number has dropped to 44 percent in the latest survey. In the same survey 59 percent of responders said that the Big 3 (Ford, GM and Chrysler) are the only American car companies. In an earlier survey, 54 percent of responders said they are less likely to buy a GM product because of the federal government bailout.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

2011 Porsche Panamera: The Family Sports Car

Thanks to its door count (four as opposed to two) one might be tempted to dismiss Porsche's Panamera sedan as a poseur in the sports car arena. Yes, the idea of a four-door Porsche takes some getting used to, but don't get hung up on those incongruous rear doors. If necessary, when approaching the Panamera, close one eye to block them from sight because once behind the steering wheel, you will forget all about those extra portals anyway.

Having launched the Gran Turismo Panamera models for 2010, Porsche is following up with the $75,375 V6 Panamera and its $79,875 AWD version, the Panamera 4, for 2011. This is a lot of cash for what is essentially the entry-level model, but when you consider that the top-end Panamera Turbo is $133,575, a sub-$80,000 price tag seems quite reasonable. The number of drive wheels is the only difference between the Panamera and Panamera 4.

The most notable contrast between Panamera and the $90,875 Panamera S, besides the $15,500 sticker price, is the number of engine cylinders. Panamera S has a 400-horsepower 4.8-liter V8 thrashing under the hood, while the Panamera has a 300-horsepower 3.6-liter V6.

Popping the Panamera's hood reveals about eight inches of empty space between the front of the engine compartment and the beginning of the V6. In S versions this gap is filled with the V8's additional cylinders. Basically the V6 is the V8 less the two cylinders. Otherwise the engines are quite similar. Both feature a 90-degree "V" which helps lower the car's center of gravity over traditional V configurations with 60-degree angles.

Wrangling engine output to the wheels is the seven-speed Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe dual clutch transmission. For most of us attempting to pronounce its name could bring on a pounding headache. Don't worry; Porsche shorthands the name to PDK. This is a driver-shiftable automatic tranny that comes with shift paddles located on either side of the three-spoke steering wheel. Clicking the front side of the paddles forward advances the transmission, while clicking the backside of the paddles toward you down shifts.

According to Porsche, galloping from a stop to 60 miles per hour takes an impressive 6.0 seconds when two wheels are doing the work and an even quicker 5.8 seconds when all four wheels are pulling. Opt for the $1,480 Sport Chrono Package with its digital stopwatch and Sport Plus button, and you can shave another 0.2 of a second from the above times.

Fuel economy is a very reasonable 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway by EPA estimates. Adding AWD chips 1 mpg from the highway number. Porsche threw everything it had at keeping fuel consumption as low as possible. Liberal use of aluminum in the engine, as well as the axles, doors, hood and front fenders, helps hold down the weight to 3,880 pounds in the RWD car and 4,012 pounds in the 4. Auto Start Stop, that automatically turns the engine off when not required, like at stop lights, and then automatically restarts it when the brake pedal is released, also helps maximize mileage.

A number of optional enhancements are available for the standard steel suspension consisting of a double-wishbone setup with cylindrical coil springs and twin-sleeve dampers in front, and a multilink arrangement with springs and dampers in the rear. This produces a firm ride and controlled handling. Porsche Active Suspension Management is a $1,990 electronically controlled damper system. The $5,000 Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control keeps the car flat during cornering. It also includes Porsche Torque Vectoring that combats understeer in the turns.

Monitored by an antilock system, the four-wheel ventilated disk brakes also support traction control, electronic stability control, emergency braking assist and electronic brakeforce distribution. Among the passive safety features inside the cabin are 10 airbags including dual front knee airbags as well as rear side-impact airbags.

Once inside the cabin, the spaciousness is striking. This isn't some 2+2 where the backseat is little more than a parcel shelf. Seating four, both front- and rear-seat occupants have scads of head, shoulder and legroom. Nearly 16 cubic feet of luggage capacity swallows cargo, and can be expanded to more than 44 cubic feet by folding down the rear seat.

First timers may find the acres of buttons, gauges, controls and switches intimidating as they slide behind the wheel. A Marine fighter pilot would probably find the density of buttons somewhat off putting. Porsche believes in a separate control for every function as opposed to some sort of central computer interface like BMW's iDrive. No complaints here.

Exactly what you would hope for in a sports car, the eight-way power-adjustable leather front bucket seats wrap around driver and passenger keeping them upright even during the hardest of cornering. Likewise the rear bucket seats provide optimum side support. Wood, leather and brightwork combine to create a rich, inviting environment.

Full power accessories, heated front seats and outboard mirrors, leather-wrapped tilt-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, dual-zone automatic climate control, and an 11-speaker audio system with a CD/DVD player and iPod interface are all standard.

A dizzying array of options will either thrill you or send you screaming out of the showroom. Everything from a $5,690 16-speaker Burmester Surround-Sound System to a $140 fire extinguisher are on the list.

If you want a luxury sedan with serious performance DNA, the Panamera is the real deal and an experience you can share with three friends.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Totally Redesigned 2011 Kia Sportage

A SmackDown of sorts has been raging in the hotly contested compact crossover (CUV) arena for several years, but the redesigned 2011 Kia Sportage should send handicappers scrambling to recalculate winners and losers. Listed among its key adversaries are Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4, Chevrolet's Equinox and Subaru's Forester. Mediocrity is not an option.

Arriving on dealer lots in limited numbers the first couple of weeks of August, the 2011 Kia Sportage is larger, more powerful, more comfortable and better looking than the two generations of Sportage that have rolled into showrooms since its original launch as a 1996 model in 1995. Sportage is, in fact, Kia's longest running nameplate.

At a glance, here are a few of the myriad changes and enhancements of the 2011 Sportage over the 2010 edition: It is longer (3.5 inches), wider (2.1 inches) and lower (2.3 inches). It has 10 percent more cargo space behind the second-row seat. It's base four-cylinder engine has more power than last year's V6, yet fuel economy is notably better. A 270-horsepower 2-liter turbo four-cylinder replaces last year's 173-horsepower V6 as Sportage's high-end powerplant. Trim levels have expanded from two to four. Handling is improved thanks to a newly engineered multi-link rear suspension setup.

Sportage's initial late-summer roll out will be restricted to four-cylinder versions (Base, LX and EX). The turbo-charged SX will follow in early fall.

First seen at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Kia's Kue concept provided the styling inspiration for the 2011 Sportage. You won't need to compare the 2010 and 2011 versions side by side to notice the changes; the transformation is abrupt. It is something akin to snatching a bum off the street, cleaning him up, giving him a shave and a haircut, and dressing him in a tux. His mother probably wouldn't recognize him. So it is with the new Sportage.

Powering the new Sportage is a 176-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with Continuously Variable Valve Timing (CVVT). Remarkably smooth and quiet, this powerplant generates three more horsepower than last year's V6. In the $18,990 Base version, engine output is funneled to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. In the $20,990 LX and the $23,990 EX, a six-speed automatic transmission with Sportmatic clutchless shifting (Kia-speak for driver-shiftable) gets power to the wheels.

In fully automatic mode, the transmission shifts smoothly and doesn't seem to have a problem finding the appropriate gear when accelerating to pass or slugging up hill. Goosing the accelerator pedal won't pin you against the seat, but Sportage is quick enough to get you out ahead of traffic when the light goes green.

Adding $1,500 to the bottom line, AWD is available on the LX and EX. Kia says its Dynamax system doesn't just react to changing road conditions; but actually anticipates changes, making corrections before problems occur. Under normal conditions, 100 percent of engine power is transferred to the front wheels. When the system detects wheel slippage, up to 50 percent of power can be sent to the rear wheels. A locking differential can be engaged at speeds less than 25 miles per hour to keep power evenly split between the front and rear wheels.

Utilizing unibody construction and a fully independent suspension, Sportage's ride is wonderfully pliant, yet it handles well for a CUV. The front suspension consists of MacPherson struts and side-loaded coil springs. The multi-link rear suspension is an all-new. Stabilizer bars at each end add strength and control. Base and LX versions come with 16-inch alloy wheels and tires, while the EX rides on 18-inch ones.

At each wheel disc brakes monitored by an antilock system help bring Sportage to controlled stops. All trim levels also feature electronic stability control, traction control and brake assist. Other standard equipment includes Hill Start Assist that prevents the vehicle from rolling backwards when starting out on an uphill grade, and Downhill Brake Control that automatically slows the vehicle to constant speed when negotiating steep downhill grades.

Inside, Sportage is roomy and inviting. Seating five it provides plenty of head and legroom both fore and aft. Offering more than adequate side support, the front bucket seats are firm comfortable. The 60/40 split rear seat folds flat, increasing cargo-carrying space from 26.1 cubic feet to 54.6 cubic feet.

Also completely redesigned the dashboard is anything but boring. It's a cacophony of of swirling lines, round edges, dips and bulges. Large and easy to see, the center gauge pod houses key information like vehicle and engine speeds. All controls and switches are logically placed and intuitive in their operation. Redundant controls for the six-speaker audio system with its CD player, USB port and auxiliary input jack are on the three-spoke steering wheel. Air conditioning, full power accessories, LCD trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, and tilt steering wheel are all included in the Base price.

Moving up to the LX increases content to include keyless entry and multi-adjustable front seats. Building on the Base and LX, the EX has a leather-wrapped tilt-telescoping steering wheel, automatic dual-zone climate control and illuminated vanity mirrors. Also standard on EX is Kia's new UVO voice-activated communications system for hands-free operation of cell phones and music features.

Keeping the pressure on the competition, the 2011 Sportage is a revealing snapshot of where Kia is heading.