Taken a few years ago at some joint on Broadway in Nashville, this was one of several photos with good-looking girls I had never laid eyes on before. It wasn't my birthday, but the Nissan crew was telling every attractive female we encountered that it was. Here's to getting older!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Hobbling Through the Holidays!

I'm not the kind of guy who heads to the doctor at the drop of a hat. In fact, if I'm in good enough shape to get around under my own steam, things aren't bad enough to require an encounter with a medical professional. That's my policy and has been for decades.

Having said that; it should come as no surprise that after a recent knee mishap, I rubbed some dirt on it and carried on. Well, not exactly, but I did opt to self medicate. I don't need no stinkin' doctor. At least I hope not. Still too soon to tell.

I'll provide the 411 on exactly what happened in a followup posting, but the important takeaway is that my knee was wrecked and I still had a Chrysler trip to Austin and a my annual trip to my sister's in New Mexico over the next 10 days.

My Austin trip was just 50 hours after my knee “went south” with an early-morning flight out of Greenville on Tuesday. I grudgingly invested $30 in a cane and managed to get myself where I needed to go on Sunday and Monday. First thing Monday morning I texted the Chrysler's trip planner and facilitator. Explaining my situation, I offered to bail on the trip rather than be a big P.I.A. Chrysler wouldn't hear of it, promising to take good care of me.

True to their word, Chrysler bent over backwards doing just that. I was babied, pampered and catered to. I sort of liked my new status. I was never really worried.

My major concern was my plane change in Atlanta and getting to baggage claim in Austin. I knew I wouldn't be able to alley-oop my rollerboard into the overhead on the plane; so, I decided to check it. Still not convinced I could hike the mile and a half usually required to change planes in Atlanta, I requested wheelchair service.

Here's the thing, once I was past the huge bruise to my ego, I fully embraced the whole wheelchair thing. It was great. Normally I get to board right after First Class with the other 50-to-90 Medallion members who are always part of any flight out of Atlanta. But at least I don't have to board with the commoners with their paper-bag luggage and chickens under their arms. (I made that part up.)

The best news ever: Roll up in a wheelchair or hobble up wielding a cane and you get to get on the plane ahead of First Class. Sweet! I could easily become accustomed to both the wheelchair service and preboarding.

I had a wheelchair meet me on the jetway when my plane landed in Austin and the attendant took me all the way to baggage claim. As we moved along the concourse I waved around my cane shouting, “Make a Hole! Precious cargo coming through. Make a hole!” Not really, but I considered it.

I didn't bother with wheelchair service on the trip to my sister's in New Mexico a couple of days after my return from Austin. I drove over and flew out of Atlanta, knowing I'd be at the airport in plenty of time to get myself where I needed to go. I flew to Denver, picked up a Volvo V60 Wagon delivered there for me and drove to my sister's some 450 miles south in Los Lunas. I managed to get myself from the plane to baggage claim without any assistance, but still took advantage of early boarding.

Although I had injured my knee almost two weeks earlier, the week I spent at my sister's was my first real opportunity to get off it and give it a rest. I spent most of the time in my brother-in-law's recliner asking for stuff like cookies, eggnog and anything else I could think of. Yep, I could get used to this.

My first order of business when I finally climbed out of the recliner was to head to the drug store to buy a knee brace. I spent a whopping $15 on that. (For those keeping score, my total investment in this injury so far is $45.)

The brace makes a remarkable difference. My knee is much more stable. I have no clue if the injury is such that it will heal itself, but I am hopeful. I did aggravate it a bit at the Denver airport as I checked in for my return trip. It had begun to feel pretty good up to that point.

Oh, well, I'm going to cross my fingers and think happy thoughts. In the meantime, I'm going to try a light workout at the gym on Jan. 2. It'll be my first time there in three weeks. If you hear a loud snap and a girl-like scream, come a runnin'.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Making Tracks in San Diego in the All-New Chevrolet Trax

I'm not the kind of guy who turns down flying to San Diego for a media launch on Monday with a return home on Tuesday despite already having flights booked to San Francisco on Wednesday. Maybe I should be, but I'm not.

This was part of a December of barnstorming back and forth across the country with carmakers that isn't over yet. Over a 10-day period, I flew to and from California twice and Reno/Lake Tahoe once. I still have a round trip to Austin to squeeze in before heading to Christmas in New Mexico. All of this while trying to make a little money and finish the construction on a new shed. It's been a stressful and busy December.

My San Diego overnighter was with Chevrolet and its all-new small crossover, Trax. This is about the only segment in which Chevy wasn't represented. Well, it is now. 

Friends don't let friends drink Stone Beers.
I arrived in time for lunch at Stone Brewery from which the ride and drives were staged. Anyone who knows me realizes this wasn't a pleasant experience for me. I am convinced that Stone is the great Satan of breweries. Have you seen its logo? After the stunt it pulled in South Carolina, I have nothing but animosity toward it. Here's the brief 411: Stone came to South Carolina with the promise that if laws were changed that permitted breweries to serve beer on site, it would establish its east-coast beachhead brewery in South Carolina. Getting this done involved a lot of SC movers and shakers, but get it done they did. Things moved right along and reached a point where a couple of local brewers in the know were convinced Stone had chosen Greenville as the site. “It's a done deal,” one of them told me. Apparently, though, no one at Stone had bothered to look at a globe until months into the process because suddenly it announced that SC wasn't central to the east coast, and it was now considering Ohio. What? I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but wouldn't determining what is a central location be the first step in such a process? What a collection of jerks. The last I heard, the clowns at Stone have since made another 180, choosing Richmond, VA as the site. I can just imagine some blindfolded doofus in Stone's executive offices tossing a dart at an east-of-the-Mississippi map.

So, I no longer drink Stone beers. I had a Stone shirt that I pitched in the trash after lining my cat's litter box with it. And, on my GreenvilleInsider Web site, I have a policy statement on the home page that reads: “Friends don't let friends drink Stone beers.” 

In any event, I wasn't happy being in the belly of the beast. But it was a terrific opportunity to put a few miles on Chevrolet's new crossover.

A global vehicle, Trax has been on sale in some regions for a while. It's built in South Korea. Chevy offers it in three trim levels with one engine-transmission combo: a 138-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged four and a six-speed automatic tranny. Pricing begins at $20,995 for the base LS that includes the MyLink infotainment interface with a seven-inch touchscreen, as well as 10 airbags, rearview camera, full power accessories and an iPod interface. It gets 34 mpg on the highway.

Things can get pricey. One of the versions I drove was a top-of-the-heap LTZ with AWD that priced out at $27,430 with its $900 worth of options. Of course, it was packed with all sorts of goodies.

A few other things worth knowing: All trim levels come with OnStar 4G LTE which includes a Wi-Fi hotspot. AWD is available across the trim spectrum for $1,500. Rear-park assist, a Bose seven-speaker audio system, power sunroof, heated outboard mirrors and heated front seats are available or standard on specific trim levels. 

The driving routes weren't particularly challenging, but did reflect the driving environment most people will find themselves in when piloting around a Trax. Without raising the bar, it is fairly quiet and comfortable. It can go toe to toe with more established competitors like Nissan's Juke.

After about three hours of driving, my driving partner and I headed to the Hotel Palomar, where Chevy boarded us. Located downtown on 5th Avenue, it is a 20-floor hotel that is modern and friendly. I didn't spend much time there other than to sleep. The product presentation was in its pool area, but otherwise, it was a blur.

Chevy hosted dinner that evening at the trendy Searsucker Restaurant. The food was excellent. It also served one of the better beers I've ever had: Belching Beaver Brewery's Peanut Butter Stout. Oh, lordy, it was good.

A whirlwind trip: I was in Chevrolet's hands all of 18 hours, but it was well worth it; well other than that Stone Brewery element.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Flying Delta Between Atlanta and Greenville Is Not a Gimme

Greenville-Spartanburg Airport.
I'm not the kind of guy who bitches incessantly about traveling in general and Delta – my airline of choice – in particular. Although, if you read this blog with any regularity, you might conclude otherwise.

In truth, I complain less now than I used to, but I used to fly 120,000 miles in an average year; now I fly around 75,000 to 80,000. I guess that could explain my more accepting attitude. I'd like to think I've mellowed in my declining years, but that's probably not the case.

I just completed my fourth Delta trip between Greenville and Atlanta in less than a week (I had a trip to San Diego 7 days ago that caused me to change planes in Detroit rather than Atlanta or it would have been my fifth Greenville/Atlanta slog.). In any event, I just completed my fourth 25-min flight to or from Atlanta.

These four flights involved six planes; half of which were broken, causing a delay. The worst experience was six days ago on my San Diego return. My original Greenville flight would have got me home at around 3:30 p.m. I have some Delta status, which means, among other things, that occasionally I get upgraded to first class. I was among the lucky first-class lottery winners for this flight. I was all the way down the jetway and could see the first of our group beginning to walk through the plane's door when one of the crew stepped into the doorway motioning us back into the terminal. Apparently the pilots discovered a fuel leak of some stripe and called for maintenance.

If this was the Wagon Queen Family Truckster station wagon, the fix would have involved some duct tape and a prayer that it would stem the fuel leak until some future day when it could be driven to the shop and fixed. This isn't how it works with planes. Whatever operation was required to permanently repair the problem had to be performed before the plane could fly. I don't have an argument when the issue is mechanical even if it does inconvenience me. My benevolent nature, however, doesn't cover non-mechanical issues that have no bearing on safety; say, like a burned out light bulb, which grounded a plane I was scheduled on from West Palm Beach to Atlanta earlier this year. Some officious snot from the FAA or some other alphabet federal agency in the course of performing a surprise inspection found the felonious bulbs and grounded the plane for two hours while the issue was resolved. Our tax dollars at work.

In the case of the fuel leak last week, the flight was delayed for about an hour as the leak's source was found, deemed not fixable at the gate and a replacement plane secured. Our departure gate was changed and in mass, 100 or so passengers adjourned to the new gate where we waited for the replacement plane to arrive and disgorge its passengers. No sooner had the last passenger walked into the gate area than the gate attendant announced that, you guessed it, this plane was also broken and the delay would be at least 45 minutes and probably longer.

When the original delay was announced, I phoned Delta and backed myself up on the next flight that was scheduled to leave around 4:45. With the announcement of the second broken plane for the same flight, I walked out of the gate area and headed to the gate for the 4:45 flight. I even retained my first-class upgrade. Delta does get some things right. I wound up arriving around 5:30, dumping me into the I-85 rush-hour traffic jam between Spartanburg and Greenville.

Concourse B at Greenville-Spartanburg Airport.

That was on Tuesday. My Wednesday-to-Friday flights to and from San Francisco went off without a hitch. My luck didn't hold, though. This morning as I waited for my flight to Atlanta kicking off a three-flight trip to Reno, a mechanical issue delayed me once again. Fortunately, it was only about 20 minutes. I baked almost a three-hour layover into my Atlanta stop; so, I wasn't concerned other than it was another broken plane.

I have no clue why mechanical issues are such a regular element of these uber-short Greenville/Altanta flights, but I find it worrisome. With Delta's change in the way it will compute its Sky Miles status levels in coming years, giving greater weight to money spent annually, I am forced to tack the Greenville/Atlanta flights onto more tickets to drive up the money spent, rather than driving over to Atlanta's airport as I historically have. In doing so, however, it appears not only am I flying more miles on planes that don't seem to be in good repair, but I take the chance of missing connecting flights. A rock and a hard place? You bet.

With the specter of flying more between Greenville and Atlanta, I expect to grow less and less happy with Delta and the condition of its regional fleet.

The down side for you, dear reader, is that my complaining is bound to increase. Consider this fair warning.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Blasting Through the Nation's Capital in a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat

I'm not the kind of guy who wants to spend a lot of time in Washington D.C. walking the monuments, gazing at the cherry blossoms or dealing with the traffic. Been there; done that. It's one of those places I think everyone should visit at least once – like the French Quarter in New Orleans, Key West, Las Vegas and so on and so forth – but once you've had the experience, you've had the experience.

So, when Dodge invited me there for an event a few weeks ago, I didn't accept to see the capital's sites. Nope, the draw was the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the new Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat....on a race track no less. Hey, not only am I a guy; I'm a car guy. What'd you think I'd do?

Truth be told, though, I arrived early enough on our travel day to walk around for a couple of hours. I mean, I'm not a total Philistine, for the love of God. 

Dodge put us up at the W on 15th Street, only two or three blocks from the Washington Monument. I'm not a huge fan of W hotels in general. I've stayed in a bunch of them around the country. They try just a little too hard to be edgy. I was in a couple of Ws years ago with hallways so dark, you needed a flashlight to find the room numbers. Recently I've noticed they are moving a little more mainstream. At least now you can see where you are going once you step out of the elevator. 

W's lobby area.
The W in D.C. is quite quite nice, actually. Centrally located to what most visitors want to see? You bet.

Yep, that's the White House.

In fact, from the rooftop bar, we could clearly see the top quarter or so of the White House. Only the Treasury Building (and some Secret Service agents – supposedly) stood between us and the Prez.

Capitol City Brewing Company.
I hiked the few blocks to the Washington Monument, gazed up at it, and, like the Griswolds at the Grand Canyon, counted one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi before turning and heading off. I covered the distance back to the hotel and then walked another three or four blocks past it to the Capitol City Brewing Company. Yes, I had found a craft brewery within a stone's throw of the W. Reason enough to stay at the W on your next D.C. visit. While there I quaffed a pint of Prohibition Porter with notes of chocolate and malt. Mmmm.... 

The Lincoln Restaurant bar.
Dinner that night was at the Lincoln Restaurant on Vermont Avenue. Specializing in American fare, the food was wonderful with friendly and attentive servers. I was impressed with the well-stocked bar. My order of Elmer T. Lee bourbon came with a square ice cube the size of a child's fist. I'm a pushover for over-sized hunks of ice be they round or cube.

After-dinner libations both nights were offered at the W's POV Terrace – otherwise known as the rooftop bar. From this perch all of the Capital stretches out before you. The view notwithstanding, I was a bit disappointed in the beverage selection that was pretty ordinary to say the least. Think of what one might find at an open-bar wedding reception. Thank, God, the company was good. 

As has become a feature of Chrysler (Now called FCA for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.) media launches, journalists were spirited away from the hotel after breakfast to another location for the product presentations and walk arounds. Reagan National Airport was that morning's destination where 25 or so Dodge Chargers of various stripes were arranged in an airplane hangar. 

Our Dodge Charger SRT 392.
After the presentations, we paired up, claimed a Charger and aimed ourselves toward West Virginia's Summit Point Motorsports Park about 70 miles away. My driving partner and I chose a $47,385 silver Charger SRT 392 for the two-hour or so sprint to the track.

Although the $62,295 Hellcat was the star of the day, the SRT 392 is no slouch. In fact, on any other day I would have been blown away by its 485-horsepower 6.4-liter Hemi V8. The “392” in its nomenclature comes from its engine's 392 cubic inches. What a rush to drive! From the curb it looks fast and its performance lives up to its looks. An eight-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission with shift paddles mounted to its flat-bottom steering wheel transfers engine grunt to the rear wheels.

These performance Chargers aren't just about acceleration. Sport-tuned suspensions provide an uber stable platform, promoting surefooted cornering. Inside, quality materials, impressive craftsmanship and loads of technology create an ideal passenger environment. It's a sedan to haul the kids to school Monday through Friday then take to the track on the weekend.

Once at the track and with all the instruction and waiver signing out of the way, we donned helmets and headed to the SRT Hellcats. Each SRT Hellcat comes with two key fobs: Black dampens the pony count; while Red unleashes the Hellcat's full fury. (There is even a “Valet” mode that really tones down performance.) Needless to say, Dodge tossed us the Red fob. 

Have you ever held the reins of a 707-horsepower screamer? Neither had I. It's not an experience soon forgotten. Piloting the Charger with the 6.2-liter Hellcat V8 Supercharged with its sub-4-second 0-to-60 time, is something akin to being strapped to a stick of dynamite. Roaring down Summit Point's 2,900-foot straightaway is about as close to being fired out of a cannon as I want to experience. The world really streaks by when the speedometer needle crosses that 120 mph mark. 

The best part about this fresh generation of V8 Chargers is the obvious lack of compromise in the way of passenger comfort and safety. Charger is a at its core a five-passenger family sedan. This doesn't change as you wind your way from the base SE with its 292-horsepower V6 and 31 mpg highway fuel economy all the way up to the SRT Hellcat. My driving partner and I drove an SRT Hellcat back to the W. Despite the roar of its exhaust and its instant and unreserved response to throttle input, it proved a civilized, if sinister, commuter.

No question about it: Dodge is Chrysler's performance division.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My Thoughts and the First DVR Casualty of 2014 Fall TV Season

It doesn't get much better than NBC's "Blacklist."
I'm not the kind of guy who is a slave to TV. I don't have to be. Thank-you DVR.

There was a time, children, when you actually had to be home watching TV on the very night a favorite show aired. If you wanted to find out exactly who shot JR, you had to be at home, watching on a Friday night. Yes, and once upon a time dinosaurs roamed the earth.

If you could afford it, figure out how to set the clock and program the damn thing, a VCR offered some relief from must-see-TV nights, but here the sophistication of the VCR tuners, tape length and shows not always airing within their scheduled time parameters conspired to reduce VCR effectiveness. Not to mention that each recording had to be manually set. I grow weary just thinking about it.

The DVR is a giant leap forward from the rickety VCR. As a subscriber to ATT Uverse, my provided DVR can record four shows simultaneously and store hours of HD programming until I get around to watching. With my travel schedule, I usually have 30 or 40 hours of stuff piled up to watch at my leisure.

So, no, I'm not a slave to TV, but I do record and watch some shows I wouldn't if not for the capacity and capabilities of my DVR.

I tell you all of this as a way of saying that I have to really not like a show to stop recording it. Usually it's the realization that I don't like the cast that inspires hitting the “Delete” button. However, it can be other things: sometimes political or simply poor writing.

The half-hour Fox comedy “New Girl” attained stop-recording status last season. As much as I like the quirky Zooey Deschanel, who is the “new girl,” I suddenly realized I didn't like any other regular character in the series. I simply didn't care what happened to these people. I might go three episodes without cracking a smile. That's not my idea of a comedy. Delete! Although I liked the characters, I reached the same point with “How I Met Your Mother” in season three or four because it became tiresome and predictable. It degenerated into mostly slapstick. Delete! “Two Broke Girls” suffered the same fate. Delete!

Escapism TV at its finest: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Still securely ensconced in my recording schedule are a number of returning can't-miss fall shows for me: “Blacklist,” “Hell on Wheels,” “Revenge,” “Person of Interest,” “Blue Bloods,” “Elementary,” “Agents of SHIELD,” and so forth. “Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” are among the half-hour comedies I also follow.

Among the shows that premiered this fall that I'm recording and watching: “Madame Secretary,” “Scorpion,” “Forever” and “Gotham.”

I started out also watching “How to Get Away with Murder.” I lasted about five episodes. I have no clue what this show is really about. Here's the premise as far as I can tell: A flawed, in-demand defense attorney with what seems to be a very healthy client list and court schedule, somehow also manages to find the time to teach a graduate law-school class. She has five or six of these students interning at her law office. They troop around with her at all hours of the day and night, virtually ignoring their other classes and studies, providing research and creative defense gimmicks in her court cases. Each week's episode revolves around one of her court cases. The back story inspiring the flashbacks (flash forwards, really) show this attorney/professor's interns covering up the murder of her professor husband, who may also be the murderer of a coed on their campus. Following me so far? 

Viola Davis (right).
After the fourth or fifth episode, I concluded that, not only is the whole situation contrived, I didn't like the attorney/professor played by Viola Davis. If you have your doubts about lawyers, wait until you get a load of her. Mean, nasty, philandering, manipulative and, maybe, psychotic. And, that's just the tip of the unlikable-characters iceberg. There isn't a likeable character in this thing. Well, the Wes Gibbins character played by Alfred Enoch isn't too bad, but one good guy can't redeem this mess. Delete!

So, there you have it. My first “Delete” of the new fall season.

Rock on.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Miami International Auto Show: Beach, New Cars, Great Nightlife, What More Do You Need?

I'm not the kind of guy who says, no, when invited to an auto show. This is true particularly when the show is in South Florida and I can tack on a few extra days to hang with friends.

Now, I said I was invited, but truth be told: I sort of had to petition the show to be invited. I was on the list and then off the list and then, well.... So I took the bull by the horns. It was South Florida, for the love of God! I reached out, made my case and wound up back on the invite list. Sometimes it helps to be me.

The Miami Beach moon and a Mazda MX-5 at the opening-night media reception.
This wasn't the best time for me to take a few days away from home; I had a lot of things percolating and should have been home actually trying to do some of them; but, did I mention, it was South Florida? So, there I am in South Florida, doing my auto media thing.

I flew out of Atlanta, which meant a 2.5-plus-hour drive from Greenville to Atlanta's airport. I can do that almost in my sleep. A 70-minute-or-so flight to West Palm put me on the ground around 1 p.m. the day before the show opened. People who don't know Florida often think it's just a hop,skip and jump from one South Florida location to another: yep, not so much. From PBI airport to Miami Beach is nearly 60 miles, which translates into somewhere around 90 minutes in non-rush-hour traffic. I extended that time period by stopping for lunch on my way. I'm ashamed to say, I stopped at the Steak 'n Shake in Delray Beach. I had a cheeseburger, fries and a double-chocolate shake. I'm bad. Regardless of the reason I'm in South Florida, I always shift into vacation mode with my first step off the jet bridge at the airport. That includes eating like a goofball.

So, we've established the reason for my Fla. boondoggle was to attend the media day for the Miami International Auto Show (MIAS). The last time I attended, it was called the South Florida Auto Show. I have no clue about the reason for the name change. The show is still the combined effort of the car-dealer association that embraces new-car dealers for the 240 miles from Riviera Beach to Key West. Ally Auto co-sponsored this year's show with the dealers association.

In its 44th year, the 10-day show will eventually welcome more than 600,000 visitors walking acres of new cars displayed in two exhibit halls of the Miami Beach Convention Center.

With the name change came a vastly improved show. Not only are new cars from nearly every brand in the house, but classic cars and motorcycles as well. “Topless in Miami” displays the drop tops that competed in this year's Southern Automotive Media Association's annual event to choose its favorite convertibles. There is also “Cars Meet Art,” bringing together several local urban artists and an assortment of new cars that they decorated.

Art Meets Cars: A local artist prepares to add her touch to a Volkswagen Beetle.
Always the first major show of the season, MIAS kicks off several months of auto shows around the country. It's a traveling circus of epic displays that require days to erect and dismantle. There are interactive stations encouraging visitors to experience some area of driving. But show visitors don't have to settle for virtual experiences, there are actual riding/driving venues like “Camp Jeep.”

Although I lived in South Florida for 25 years, about my only visits to Miami Beach were in conjunction with the auto show. I was fortunate that I was often the guest of one of the manufacturers that put me up, as well as wined and dined me, the night before the show's media day. I always looked forward to my annual Miami Beach outings. I'd put its nightlife up against the after-dark scene anywhere in the world. Expensive? Yep. Big Fun? Oh, yeah!

The Sagamore.
The show accommodated its media guests in the Sagamore Hotel on Collins Avenue in South Beach. It is one of scores of trendy hotels shoehorned next to one another along the beach. Miami Beach isn't a fun place to drive; well, unless you are showing off behind the wheel of a $200,000 car. (The Land Rover Range Rover Sport V8 Autobiography I was driving only rang the register at a measly $104,500.) It's home to the five-minute traffic signal that adds to the congestion. Blend that with rubberneckers looking at the beach and its sights, pedestrians crossing against traffic, the Collins Ave. street construction that seems to have been going on since Henry Flagler first brought his railroad down to Miami, and you've got traffic flow that moves with the alacrity of tree sap. But, it's all part of the unique Miami Beach experience.

I love it!

MIAS runs until November 16. 

One more shot of the moon.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Predicting the Steelers Season: No Clue

I'm not the kind of guy who ever feels totally secure in the fortunes of the Steelers.

Of course, historically, they sort of stagger their way through the regular season. Post Terry Bradshaw, they made due with a parade of second-rate QBs – and even spent a couple of seasons trying to turn wide receiver Kordell Stewart back into a quarterback – with varying results. Do you remember Bubby Brister? No? You're not alone.

Neil O'Donnell managed to get them to Super Bowl XXX in 1995. He should have been sued for malpractice after tossing a couple of interceptions to the Cowboys in that game. As a Steelers fan, it was tragic.

In 2003, there was a rumor or two of Dan Marino finishing up his last year in the NFL at Pittsburgh. Had that happened, the Steelers would probably have another championship and Marino a Super Bowl ring. It was essentially the same team that Roethlisberger had a 15 and 1 season with in 2004 and took to the Super Bowl in the 2005 season. The Steelers were a championship team in search of a decent QB.

Does seeing this action shot of ol' Bubby Brister help ring any bells? Didn't think so.
Since Big Ben has been at the helm, they have not cast off their mantle as the “Cardiac Kids.” Even in the two seasons resulting in Super Bowl wins, on regular-season game day, you never knew if it was the champion-caliber Steelers or the guys who tripped over their shoelaces getting off the team bus that were going to show up that day.

Even when they went on to win Super Bowl XL at the end of the 2005 season, it was as a Wild Card. They won 11 and lost 5 that season – 3 of those loses came clumped together in a mid-season slump. They were 7 and 2 up to that point. They played with more authority in their most recent Super Bowl-winning season in 2008, winning 12 regular-season games. At least they went six for six within their division. By week 13 or 14, we were pretty sure they were headed to the playoffs. With home-field advantage, they beat the Chargers and the Ravens (for the third time that season) to work their way to the championship game against the Arizona Cardinals, which turned out to be a nail-biter against a team that went 9 and 7 in the regular season.

I am escorting you – kicking and screaming, no doubt – down memory lane as a prologue to admitting, I have no clue how the Steelers will wind up this season. So far their play has been mediocre at best until last week's brilliant offensive effort against the Colts. The week before, they were being slapped around by the Texans until a 3-minute spurt of brilliance late in the second quarter saw them rack up 24 points. They only scored another 6 off of field goals the rest of the game. And, although the offense blew it out against the Colts, the defense gave up 34 points. Steelers have only scored more than 34 points twice this season, including against the Colts.

Early in the season I thought they were bound for another 8 and 8 finish. At 5 and 3, it could still be the case, but somehow, I don't think so. I think, barring any major injuries, they have a fair chance of landing at least a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. A lot will depend on how they perform in their remaining three divisional match ups: Ravens tonight and Bengals in weeks 13 and 17.

So, I will be crossing my fingers, thinking happy thoughts – the glass is half full, the glass is half full... – as I grit my teeth through tonight's game.

Go Steelers!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Driving a Toyota Trio Along the Beaches of North Florida

I'm not the kind of guy who is often overwhelmed by sensory overload. I can multitask with the best of them. Well, I'd much rather attack one thing at a time, but, when push comes to shove, I've been known to keep a few balls in the air.

All of my juggling skills came into play at the recent Toyota media event for the 2015 Sienna, Camry and Yaris in Ponte Vedra, just outside Jacksonville, Fla. As is typical of regional Toyota events, we arrived around noon of Day 1 and were back on airplanes heading home by late afternoon of Day 2. Factor in time for meals, formal presentations and scheduled goofing off – oh, and I did squeeze in a shower and some sleep – and there isn't a heck of a lot of time left over to drive three core models and their several variations. 

Toyota bedded us down at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. This is an old-Florida lodging with a main building and lobby on one side of the ocean-view street and a ribbon of guest-room buildings on the other side on the beach. I basically stepped out of my room, walked across a narrow sidewalk and a little grass, and was on the beach. Not that the beach access did me much good: When in the hell was I going to have time to enjoy it? But the view out my back door was stunning. 

The view from my room's patio.
In addition to the area where guests check in, the main building is a maze of lounges and assorted rooms. Most of our functions were on the beach side of the property in a complex called, the Surf Club, despite the fact that the east coast of Florida is notoriously absent of any significant surf. However, “Surf Club” does have a nice beachy ring to it.

A lounge in the main building.
None of the three models featured at this event underwent a major redesign for 2015, but Toyota did a significant amount of tinkering to all three. Because the overhauls weren't major, don't look for any real change in the engines or transmissions. These stayed pretty much the same in all three models. 

2015 Camry.
As Toyota's (and America's, really) best selling car, any change to Camry is a big deal. Toyota made some fairly widespread enhancements inside and out. Roughly 2,000 parts were replaced or changed. All the exterior sheetmetal is new except for the roof. With more character than last year's Camry, the exterior styling is sharp and modern. Not overlooked, the dashboard, center stack and instrumentation all benefit from some degree of tweaking. Simply stated, the passenger experience has moved up market.

Toyota also added a new, sportier trim called XSE with bigger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension.

During our four or five behind-the-wheel hours, my driving partner and I piloted around in a V6 and a four-cylinder Camry, as well as an example of the XSE and a hybrid. I'm pretty satisfied with the performance of the 178-horsepower four-banger and its 35 mpg highway fuel economy. Of course, we were dealing mostly with surface roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less. Still, it has plenty of get-up-and-go and a more wallet-friendly price tag: Base price is $23,795, and that's with a six-speed automatic transmission. Jumping up to the 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, bumps the base price to $32,195, while dropping fuel economy to 31 mpg highway. 

2015 Sienna with our $200-an-hour model kayaking.
Willing to open myself to some ridicule, I'm not afraid to admit that I'm a big fan of minivans. And, I'm saying that as someone that doesn't have a family to cart around. They are simply the most functional vehicles on the road. It was in this spirit that I was curious about improvements in the Sienna. I've done a couple of fairly serious roadtrips to South Florida with several friends in Siennas and was completely blown away by this people hauler's fuel economy, efficiency of space and plain comfort. There is even an all-wheel-drive version of most trim levels.

Toyota didn't perform anywhere near the same sweeping changes to Sienna's exterior, but did spend some time making interior enhancements. Better materials and higher-end, soft-touch treatments abound. There's lots of technology, too. If you liked last year's Sienna, you'll love the 2015. We spent an hour or so on the road in the new Sienna and were knocked out by its quiet, competent performance. All Siennas are powered by Toyota's 3.5-liter V6. Here it delivers 266 horsepower. A six-speed automatic transmission ushers output to either the front or all wheels. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 25 mpg for FWD versions in highway driving. Pricing starts at $28,600, and runs up to a whopping $46,150.

2015 Yaris.
It probably won't come as a complete surprise that we saved the Yaris for last in this drive-what-you-have-time-to, multi-model event. There is certainly a place among budget-conscious shoppers for Yaris, but as a “car guy,” I'm going to drive everything else first. Pricing for Yaris begins at $15,670 for a three-door. This is a tiny hatchback that delivers 37 mpg on the highway from its 106-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. We drove the manual, rather than a Yaris armed with the four-speed automatic. It was fairly lively and somewhat fun.

With my head spinning with stats and driving experiences, I boarded the plane in Jacksonville to wing my way back to South Carolina – with the obligatory layover and plane change in Atlanta, of course. I think I may have spent more waking hours on this trip in the Atlanta airport than I did my hotel room.

My takeaway: Toyota continues to turn up the heat where it counts, keeping pressure on the competition.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hotdogging in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile

I'm not the kind of guy who turns down the opportunity to pilot a huge frankfurter around South Florida; so, that's exactly what I did about 20 years ago. Man, it really was almost 20 years ago. Time really flies when you're clawing out an existence.

What brought this to mind was a frantic search this morning for some archival photo to throw up on Facebook for “throw-back Thursday.” I came across some photos taken the day I spent behind the wheel of an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. I write “a” Wienermobile because at the time, Oscar Mayer operated six such vehicles: three or four in the U.S., one in Canada and another dedicated to foreign marketing. 

My Wienermobile crew: From left Donna Grady, Michelle Navedo and Jonathan Rhudy.
The corporation, part of Kraft Foods, hired two freshly graduated college seniors – Hotdoggers – to man each Wienermobile. These, I understand, were and still are highly prized 12-month positions that the hot-dog maker actively recruits for on college campuses.

My buddy John, at the time, was the regional sales manager for Kraft Foods in South Florida. During one of our outings, I expressed a desire to drive the Wienermobile. I was writing the auto pages for the Palm Beach Post at the time, and thought it would be a fun story. As it turned out, the story was picked up by a couple of other newspapers including the Washington Times.

Amy and I.
I received a call from John one day notifying me that the Wienermobile would be in Palm Beach County on a particular day, and Oscar Mayer would make it available to me for four hours or so. We settled on a location and time where I would meet it and its crew. I called my buddy Amy to see if she might want to tag along and shoot some photos of this landmark event. She, of course, was in!

Arriving at the appointed meeting place, we found the vehicle set up in a parking lot with its side door open and a sign in front just as though it was participating in an event of some sort. It, obviously, had attracted a gawker or two.

There was actually a crew of three that day. One of the Wienermobiles had been somehow damaged and was in an airplane hanger somewhere being repaired. Mayer split its two-person crew between two other Wienermobiles, one of which was mine. 

Engaging the slalom.
The crew had set up a simple slalom course with small orange cones to measure my capacity to pilot this monster. Having bested the course, they then set up cones to test my parallel-parking skills. No surprise that there is virtually no way to view what is happening behind this thing. Even the outboard mirrors aren't sufficient to provide a comprehensive rear view. But, even in the early 1990s, there was a degree of camera technology. I don't remember clearly, but there were either two or three rear cameras.

I had never attempted to park something this big; nor had I ever parked anything using TV monitors for the rear view. 

Receiving my well-deserved props from the crew after parallel parking.
I slid the Wienermobile into the space on my first try. I probably couldn't have done it again had you put a gun to my head. But, I did do it on the first attempt. Whether the crew was actually impressed, I have no clue; but they sure acted like it.

My two tests completed, I received some basic dos and don'ts regarding my role behind the wheel. The two instructions I specifically remember: Wave and smile at every person and vehicle, and don't drive under any low-hanging tree branches. Got it!

Rules stated and received, we mounted up and headed out on the highway. 

Me at the wheel preparing to embark.
Despite this vehicle's size, it wasn't difficult to drive. An uber-high seating position provided excellent visibility down the road. Mastering the use of the rearview cameras required a bit of time, but otherwise, no worries.

What was tough was the smiling and waving. After two hours of zipping around in this contraption my right arm felt like lead and my face hurt. Only a kid could possibly do this for eight or ten hours a day without requiring an emergency-room visit. 

It was a great day, however! After cruising back into our starting point and dismounting, the crew gave me a small orange traffic cone they had all signed. Each signature accompanied by a little saying like, “You cut the mustard” and “You're top dog.” The cone is long gone, but the memories aren't.

I have to say that with nearly 30 years in the auto-journalism business under my belt, this was one of the most unique experiences and best times I've had just doing my job.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Taking to the Street in the All-New GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado

GMC Canyon Crew Cab.
I'm not the kind of guy who gets all lathered up over pickup trucks. Sure, when you need a truck, you need a truck; but how often is that, really? For most of us, not very.

My recent week with a GMC Sierra 2500 4WD Crew Cab was a series of highs and lows. The greatest high was using its 765 lb-ft of torque to pull down my shed. The greatest low was needing to schedule myself to go to the gym before 11 a.m. to be able to get it parked before the lunch crowd showed up at the restaurant next door.

So, although I was curious about the all-new midsize GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado pickup trucks, I didn't exactly jump for joy when the invitation to the national media launch of both arrived in my mailbox. 

From L'Auberge's rooftop.
However, I arrived at the L'Auberge Resort in Del Mar, Calif., where Chevrolet and GMC hosted the event, an agnostic and left a believer.

This was my third or fourth stay at L'Auberge. Both quaint and laid back, it sits a block or so off the beach. It's not surprising that it's popular with carmakers as an anchor point for media product launches. 

More of an appetizer than a full-course Colorado/Canyon meal, the exposure was quick and casual. Most media arrived around lunch time of day one and were on planes heading home by 5 p.m. on day two. I had less time than that, arriving mid afternoon of the first day and departing the hotel for the John Wayne Airport at 9:00 the morning of day two. I was there long enough, though, to have dinner at the Prep Kitchen just a short walk from the hotel. 

Dinner at the Prep Kitchen.
After dinner, we adjourned to the hotel's Bleu Bar for after-dinner libations. High-end tequila was the spirit of the day. With both Clase Azul and Don Julio 1942 on the menu, making a choice proved too difficult for me; I had both. Put a gun to my head: I'd have to give the nod to Clase Azul as the better sipper. But it was close.

Despite my short duration on the ground, I had enough time to take both trucks for a spin.

The ride and drive routes – most were less than 30-minutes long; although, there was also one roughly an hour long on which I took the Colorado – were staged from the hotel's Surf Station near the beach.

Product honchos at GM are convinced there is a fairly large group of buyers for midsize trucks lurking just beneath the surface of the general new-car market. Because the Toyota Tacoma and the Nissan Frontier are a bit outdated, yet the only game in town, GM leadership believes the bulk of midsize truck intenders have found a home mostly in crossovers. All it will take to lure these crossover owners back to the midsize-truck segment, say these guys, is a new, stylish, well-contented pickup. 

I'm here to tell you: GM has two.

The styling speaks for itself. No one seeing them for the first time will think “square” or “boxy.” “Sleek” may be off a little as an adjective, but it's close. Although they look stylish, they are trucks with the fully boxed frame that “truck” implies. They are also a bit larger than their “midsize” describer might indicate. GM will offer both as Extended Cab or Crew Cab. Neither will be available in the U.S. market with a regular cab.

Both come with either a 200-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder or a 305-horsepower 3.6-liter V6. Although a six-speed manual can be ordered on selected Extended Cab versions, GM product planners expect most buyers will choose the six-speed automatic tranny. The V6 in the 2WD Crew Cab gets 26 mpg on the highway and can tow up to 7,000 lbs. Not too shabby.

Chevrolet Colorado.
I didn't get to try out a four-cylinder example of either truck, but the V6 pulls like a draft horse, sprints like a leopard, and is quiet as a church mouse. In fact, the entire driving experience is so smooth, civilized and quiet, it would have been easy for me to forget I wasn't driving a large sedan, like the Impala. 

Sure the Canyon is a bit more upmarket than the Colorado, but both have cabins that are carefully constructed with lots of soft-touch surfaces and loads of technology. A WiFi hot spot extending 50 feet around the truck, OnStar and MyLink/IntelliLink, plus all manner of safety technology are all either standard or offered as an option. Both also offer either a 5 ft. 2 in. or 6 ft. 2 in. cargo box each can be fitted with a lockable EZ Lift-and-Lower tailgate. There are 13 tie-down locations with movable tie-down rings.

Base price of the Colorado is $20,995; while the Canyon starts at $21,880.

I was simply blown away by the driveability of these trucks. I could very easily live with one as a daily driver.

GM is probably on to something relaunching entries into the midsize arena. I think these trucks will do well.