Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

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

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

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  

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:

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

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 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 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.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Witch: Hurricane Wilma

Typically you’d feel sorry for anyone (or anything) named Wilma, even a hurricane. Who would saddle a kid with a name like that? The brunt of playground taunts as a kid and then forever accosted with the question: Hey, where’s Fred? It’s enough to make anyone bitter and angry. Well, the Wilmas of the world got their revenge in the fall of 2005 when Hurricane Wilma struck Florida.

Optimists that we are, the intrepid residents of South Florida's east coast believed we had made it through a hurricane season basically unscathed. Dade County got a little beat up by Katrina – when she was still practicing to be a hurricane – but by in large, we had dodged the bullet. Although late October hurricanes are not unheard of, they are the exception and not the rule. I was just preparing to return all my patio furniture to my pool deck when the first rumblings regarding Wilma began.

I wasn’t among the minority in not taking Wilma seriously. Virtually no one who had been through a hurricane season in southeastern Florida gave this storm too much thought. After all, it was heading toward the Gulf. We had been watching its progress for 10 days before it hit Florida. For eight of those days it was moving northwest toward Mexico, which it did hit. We talked about the poor slobs in the Gulf area who were going to get hit again. Even when the projections had it taking a 90-degree turn on a course for the Gulf coast of southern Florida, those of us on the east coast barely blinked an eye.

First and foremost, the track had historically not been terribly accurate. The original projection had it coming directly over Palm Beach County and we were convinced that there was no way the original projected path would be correct. They rarely had been. Secondly, these things always run out of steam over land. Even if it did get to us, we were expecting a Cat 1 at most.

Once Wilma actually made that right turn, we began to pay some attention. I had stocked up on water and canned goods earlier in the week. I already had plywood and screws if it came to boarding up. No worries there.

Sunday, October 23rd was beautiful. I sat out by the pool for a couple of hours reading and napping. I was recovering from another rough night at the hands of my favorite bartender Eric “The Destroyer” at CityPlace in West Palm Beach. I snapped on The Weather Channel a couple of times during the day to see what was what. TWC still showed the same path with an anticipated arrival on the east coast sometime Monday afternoon. Ho hum....

I contemplated boarding up my Boynton Beach home. It hardly seemed worth it for a Cat 1 or less. I had my plywood stash from the previous year’s two hurricanes stored in the garage. The problem was, they were buried behind a mountain of stuff. One reason I had put off boarding up was because just getting to the wood would be a bigger job than the actual boarding up.

Finally early Sunday afternoon I decided to go ahead and board up most of the windows. I left the living room windows on the front of the house and all the sliders on the back of the house to do on Monday. I figured I’d have plenty of time Monday morning, if it still looked like we were in danger. Besides, the plywood for the sliders was even more difficult to reach and I didn’t want to bother if I didn’t have to. About 4:30 I headed over to my pal Amy’s for dinner.

In hindsight, I suppose my mistake was getting my Wilma updates from TWC. They were so busy trying to create Wolf Blitzers out of their team of field correspondents, they didn’t really tell enough of the story. All TWC kept showing were correspondents in different locations around Florida with stuff blowing around behind them. Makes for compelling TV, but didn’t provide much in the way of info on what was predicted in specific areas. At Amy’s we tuned into the local weather to discover that the event was going to be a direct hit on Palm Beach County and would begin around 6 AM and last until about 3 PM. What!

As I drove home later that night, I formulated a game plan for Monday. I awoke at 4:30 AM, answered e-mails and fed the cats. By 6:00 I was moving everything into the garage that I hadn’t already moved off the pool deck. By 6:30 the winds were gusting 40 to 45 mph and I was boarding up the last of my glass. I left enough space between the sheets of plywood to allow me to watch the storm. This would be the first big hurricane I’d been through in my 21 years in Florida that didn’t arrive in the middle of the night. I wasn’t going to miss it.

By 10 AM the front hurricane wall was upon us. I have no clue what the wind speeds actually were because my power went out around 8:30. It was, however, an awesome show. At the height of the front-wall winds, I looked out back and saw that the metal roof that covered one end of my screened-in pool area was beginning to sail. The support beam attached to the concrete supporting the roof's center had broken loose from the base. I was more than a little alarmed. I had visions of this roof being torn loose and catapulting over the fence into the neighbor’s house.

All I had and everything I’d worked for was in that house. I had visions of major damage. It was now personal. I ran into the garage grabbed my rain slicker off the hook, my work gloves and safety glasses off the work bench and ran outside. I wrapped my arms around the support and using my body weight, held it down. I suspect the winds at this point were gusting from 80 to 90 mph. I played the part of a human sandbag for about 40 minutes until the front wall began to pass. It was stupid, but exhilarating.

When the eye finally arrived, it was downright eerie. The sun came out and the air was totally calm. I walked the perimeter of my house checking for damage and stacking branches from the neighbor’s fricking Florida pine trees in a secure place. I was relieved to see no real damage so far.

The back wall arrived around 11:30 or noon. If the front wall was awesome, the back wall was absolutely spectacular and ferocious. The gusts were much more severe; but because the wind direction had changed, my pool-deck roof was out of danger. Wilma beat us for two, maybe 21/2 hours more hours. I’ve never seen anything to compare with it. I was sitting in one of my recliners watching the back fence blow violently from side to side like spectators at a football game doing the wave. The neighbor’s roof-mounted solar panel for his water heater blew off and over his roof. Stuff was flying against the front of my house like grapeshot out of a 12-pounder cannon. Unbelievable.

Other than some 15 to 20 mph wind gusts, it was all over by 3:00 PM, and the sun was shinning by 5:00. An inventory of the house found my mailbox M.I.A., the gutter over my front door gone and a ton of debris in the yard; but that was about it. I opened a bottle of The Zin (a precocious red ideal for celebrating the survival of a hurricane), roasted a couple of hot dogs on my grill after rolling it out of the garage and ate dinner on the pool deck. Thankfully a cold front followed Wilma and temperatures took an immediate 15-20 degree drop. The temperature spread was a low of 55 at night and a high in the mid 70s during the afternoons for the next few days while the electricity was off.

Tuesday morning I stayed in bed until the sun started to rise. I made campfire coffee on my grill, bundled up in my bathrobe and watched the sun rise from the pool deck. Life was good. During my cleanup on Tuesday, the neighbor began returning pieces of my mailbox as he came across them in his yard. Eventually I had them all and jerry-rigged them back together. Although I found my front gutter in the backyard, it was a goner.

My neighbor remarked later in the morning that his pile of debris was the biggest on the block and he was going for first prize. Since all the branches and associated pine tree mess, along with all the chunks of shingles from a 20-year-old roof that partially disintegrated during last year’s hurricanes and was never replaced that covered my yard were all from his property, I had a couple of choice thoughts I considered conveying to him. But I didn’t. After all, he did return my mailbox.

Requiring days for the area's electricity to come back on line, such niceties as traffic lights and the coolers in grocery stores were out throughout Palm Beach County. This rendered my daily treks out to what was left of civilization an adventure in navigation and an exercise in patience. The concept of four-way stops is lost on the bulk of the South Florida population.

Finally around 2:30 Thursday morning my power kicked on. It scared the ever-living crap out of my cats (and me for that matter) when the TV began to blare in the middle of the night.

Opening the door and glancing inside, I found my refrigerator filled with beer and wine and nothing else. A few of the grocery stores were operating on generator power, but none had the electric capacity to run cold cases or freezers. The bread aisles were bare, as were the aisles containing just about anything else you’d want to eat. Deviled ham? Anyone?

Like survivors from a plane crash, the residents of South Florida, with glazed stares, wandered around their neighborhoods or took their lives in their hands to venture out in cars.

Of course for some of us, it was time to gather and party on!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

2011 Toyota 4Runner

Given the popularity of crossovers, it is gratifying to see the 2011 Toyotal 4Runner remaining true to its rugged, go-anywhere roots. As tough and durable as ever, the 2011 Toyota 4Runner rolls into showrooms with little in the way of change. Receiving a major makeover for 2010, the 4Runner further cemented its place in Toyota's stable as a go-anywhere SUV with decent cargo capacity and a healthy amount of amenities. Historically SUVs evolve slowly, so there was little motivation for Toyota to tinker with one that had been thoroughly redesigned just a year ago.

A market segment with a split personality, SUVs fall into one of two groups: traditional, truck-based pack horses or crossovers that are basically butched-up alternatives to minivans. 4Runner is firmly and unequivocally entrenched among the former. It has been and continues to be an SUV with "off-road capability" emphasized boldly in its mission statement. A rugged dirt pounder of the first order, it is better suited to rock crawling than carting little Jimmy to his weekly bassoon lesson; but can achieve either with equal competence.

Toyota offers the 4Runner in three trim levels: SR5, Trail and Limited. A 4x4 system is available in the SR5 and is standard in the Trail. An all-wheel-drive system is available in the Limited.

One major split between the 2010 and 2011 4Runner lineups is the disappearance of the anemic 157-horsepower four-cylinder engine giving life to last year's RWD SR5. For 2011, all 4Runners, from the $30,335 entry-level RWD SR5 to the top-of-the-line $40,495 AWD Limited, derive their giddy-up from a 270-horsepower 4-liter V6. No matter the number of drive wheels, a five-speed automatic transmission distributes engine output.

You might think you would miss the availability of a V8, but not so much. A number of competitors don't offer a V8 option either. This V6 is both powerful and efficient. When appropriately equipped, it can tow up to 5,000 pounds. In 4Runners configured with RWD, the EPA estimates mileage at 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. And whether the four-wheel drive is full time or part time, only the highway mpg number is affected, and that's only by -1 mpg.

My test 4Runner was the $32,075 SR5 4x4. Rounding out the trim-level selection are the $36,615 Trail and the $38,460 RWD Limited.

Brutish in appearance, this SUV projects a no-nonsense demeanor promising a high level of skill once the pavement disappears. Contributing to its off-road prowess it its body-on-frame design and advanced four-wheel-drive systems. Found in the SR5 and Trail is a two-speed part-time system operated by a second shift lever mounted on the center console. It features a 4HI and 4LOW setting, as well as neutral.

Serious off-roaders should appreciate Trail's CRAWL control that matches one of five speed levels to the terrain, freeing the driver to concentrate on steering a safe course. Additionally the Trail's Multi-Terrain Select system lets the driver dial in a targeted amount of wheel slip based on the current terrain, such as mud or sand. The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System is a $1,750 option on the Trail that allows disconnecting the stabilizer bars for increased wheel travel over really rough terrain.

The Limited's AWD system features a locking center differential and a three-mode switch mounted on the center console. Both the part-time and full-time systems have A-TRAC traction control capable of distributing power to whichever of the four wheels has grip.

An independent double-wishbone setup in front and a four-link arrangement in the rear are the major components of the suspension that also includes coil springs over gas shocks at all four wheels. Although you won't mistake the ride with that of, say, the Avalon, it is surprisingly smooth for a vehicle engineered to overcome wild terrain.

Seventeen-inch alloy wheels hide ventilated disc brakes with antilock oversight on all four wheels. Stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assist join the aforementioned traction control as some of the standard safety features. Two knee airbags bring to a total of eight the number of airbags around the cabin.

With the optional third-row seat, 4Runner can seat as many as seven in its roomy interior. Both the second- and third-row seats can fold flat. With the third-row seat in place, there are nine cubic feet of luggage space. Folding the third-row seat flat increases space to 47 cubic feet, which balloons to 90 cubic feet with both rear seats folded flat.

Standard in every 4Runner are full power accessories, remote keyless entry, heated outboard mirrors with integrated turn signals, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and 10 cup/bottle holders. Entertainment in the SR5 comes from an eight-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio and auxiliary input jack. Every audio system has what Toyota calls "Party Mode." When engaged, this feature cranks up the base and transfers the output balance to the rear speakers, including those located in the tailgate.

Although 4Runner serves well as an image vehicle for poseurs, it excels as an off-road tracker for adventurers serious about the outdoors. Keeping it reined in on paved surfaces only is something akin to harnessing Seabiscuit to a hay wagon. What's the point? When drafted into around-town errands, however, 4Runner is sufficiently civilized, roomy and comfortable to deliver whatever is demanded of it. Engineered for the outback, it performs brilliantly in the city.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

In engineering the all-new 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, product planners wanted to score the highest highway fuel economy numbers. Achieving an EPA-estimated 40 mpg highway rating, the Sonata Hybrid does have the best highway fuel economy among midsized hybrids. Plus, it can be driven up to 62 miles per hour in electric-only mode. Read my full review at

2011 Buick Enclave

Although it is basically unchanged from last year's model, the 2011 Buick Enclave is still a top-notch crossover. Providing nearly minivan-like space, Enclave mixes upscale furnishings with gobs of technology. Additionally, its 288-horsepower 3.6-liter V8 provides plenty of get-up-and-go. Read my full review at