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!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Florida Keys: An Exercise In Doing Nothing

Sunset party at Islamorada's Lorelei.
I'm not the kind of guy who doesn't recognize when he has it pretty good. For someone who doesn't have a pot to piss in, I get around. Not exactly Saul on the road to Damascus, nonetheless I was thunder struck by the thought of just how good I've got it as I was trekking from the condo where I'm staying with friends in The Keys to their boat for a little predinner tour of the bay.

Just a little something of a ride: My E63 AMG wagon.
I used Delta Sky Miles to fly from Atlanta to West Palm Beach where Mercedes Benz had a $107,000 E63 AMG station wagon waiting for me. I was met by a representative of Prestige, a vendor for several carmakers that delivers cars to media types. He carried my bags to the sleek wagon, had me sign on the dotted line and sent me on my way.

All of this wasn't without some cost. My friends who extended The Keys invitation have a utility room/half bath that required painting. I like doing that sort of stuff, so I underwrote some of the expense of adding me to their merry little band of slackers (In The Keys, everyone who isn't gainfully employed is a slacker – that includes vacationers.) by investing much of my first day in Florida painting. I packed all the painting paraphernalia I anticipated needing in a second suitcase and brought it with me.

Completing my painting mission, I tossed my stuff back in the E63 and headed south to hook up with my friends. I have two sets of Delray Beach friends who each rent a house in Islamorada for a month every summer. This is week No. 3 or so of this year's adventure.

Some of our little band of slackers mugging it up for the camera.
It's been years since I drove to Islamorada that is just south of Key Largo. There was a day when I humped down there several times a year. Sometimes just to hang for the day before heading home around dinner time. Depending on the time of day and the day of the week, the trip from Delray to Islamorada can take from 2.5 hours to 4 or 5 hours. This particular run required about 3 hours. It's south down the Florida Turnpike to the Turnpike Extension to Florida City and then on the Overseas Highway to Islamorada. 

I forgot what a stressful drive parts of the Turnpike Extension is as it cuts through sections of South Miami. A car fire along the way also turned the stream of traffic into an exercise in braking and swearing. Something that has changed since I last slogged my way to The Keys is that the Turnpike Extension is now basically a Florida Sun Pass-only stretch of highway. If you don't have a Sun Pass, they photograph your license plate and send a bill. This works fine for people driving their own cars; but not so fine for mooches like me piloting someone else's ride. I suspect Mercedes isn't going to be thrilled when that bill arrives. 

Some sunset entertainment.
 I arrived at my friends' rental in plenty of time for a brew or two before heading to the iconic Lorelei for some dinner and the sunset spectacle. Here we were entertained by a talented guitar picker as we wolfed down burgers and beer. 

Take us to the Lorelei, Jeeves.
One of the kids earned her driver's license earlier in the day before heading to The Keys. She expertly chauffeured us to dinner and back.

All things considered, it was an ideal first day unwinding and working hard at doing nothing.

What a sunset!
It's always 5:00 somewhere when in The Keys.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Elvis Wasn't My Copilot on the Southeast Media Drive of the 2015 Hyundai Sonata in Memphis

I'm not the kind of guy who goes in much for tourist traps. I've never seen the “world's largest ball of twine,” for example. But there I was in Memphis, Tennessee with Hyundai for the Southeast media first drive of the redesigned 2015 Sonata with the prospect of visiting Elvis' Graceland for the first time dangling in front of me. What was I going to say, no?

I had no more than walked in the front door of the Westin Memphis hotel than I was ambushed by a contingent of Hyundai PR types asking if I was interested in tagging along on a spur-of-the-moment pilgrimage to Graceland.

I hadn't even checked in yet. “Um, well, ah, er...,” I stammered.

I had a couple of work-related things which needed my attention, but an offer to see the home of the world's iconic rock and roller doesn't come every day. It was approaching 2:00 in the afternoon. A tidy group of a half-dozen-or-so media types, giddy with anticipation, was already forming in the lobby for the trek to Elvis' former crib.
Obtaining our copy of this stunning pic only cost $25! But it was printed on authentic glossy paper.
My knee-jerk reaction to such opportunities is to simply say, yes, and deal with any consequences later. I guess it's really more of a guiding principle than a reaction. In any case, I followed it, joining this merry band of wide-eyed tourists after checking in and depositing my bag in room 327.

As we filed out of the hotel, an example of my reason for being in Memphis sat gleaming in the bright sunlight in front of the Westin's entrance. The 2015 Hyundai Sonata is one fine looking sedan. 

The Gibson Guitar factory is across the street from the Westin.
 As an accessible premium-like sedan – think Genesis for the unwashed – here are a few Sonata highlights that you may find compelling: Its cabin is sufficiently roomy to earn it a “large” classification by the EPA. Its interior volume dwarfs all of its benchmark competition, such as Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion. All interior components are redesigned to enhance driver comfort and confidence. 

Two four-cylinder engines power assorted Sonata versions. Although the base 2.4-liter four with its 185 horsepower is an eager power source, the 245-horsepower 2-liter turbocharged four is nothing short of a blast to pilot. It is aggressive and responsive. It attacks the corners like Michael Moore going after a sack of Oreos. Hyundai pairs both engines to a six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission.

Seven airbags include a new driver's-side knee airbag. Other standard or available safety features, such as forward-collision warning, blind-spot detection, rear-cross-traffic alert and lane-departure warning increase the sense of security. Toss in automatic high-beam control, adaptive cruise control with full-stop capability and automatic trunk opening, and you begin to get an idea of just how advanced the new Sonata is.

The list of multi-media features is extensive as well. Sonata offers everything from Pandora to Hyundai's Blue Link with remote start.

Anchoring the price structure is the $21,150 Sonata SE. From there prices wind their way to as much as $33,525 for a loaded-up Sonata Sport 2.0T.

Although the roads from Memphis down through Mississippi along its Delta Blues corridor aren't overly challenging, they are rather twisty, despite being pancake flat. The Sonatas armed with both engines were a delight to drive. Without question, the turbocharged 2-liter provided the more exciting experience, but my driving partner and I were also smitten with the less potent four. The most glaring difference between the two engines is that the transmission stays pretty busy with the non-turbo.

Graceland's "Jungle Room."
We, of course, wouldn't discover all of this until the next day when we would pile into Sonatas and head into Mississippi. In the meantime, we were Graceland bound.

Make no mistake: Graceland is a tourist trap of the first order. Hyundai was kind enough to pony up the $37 cost of my embarking on this tour of all things Elvis. I won't dwell on the varied and somewhat creative means by which the good folks running Graceland have concocted over the years to separate enthusiastic Elvis fans from their money. But they are legion. 

Not really a mansion by today's standards.
The house itself is less than a mansion by today's standards. Seeing it for the first time wasn't as big a shock as my first up-close-and-personal gander at the Alamo, but I certainly expected something bigger. Inside, some rooms are quite tasteful; while others looked like they were designed by a color-blind decorator tripping on LSD. Green shag carpet on the ceiling? Really?

Even as someone who grew up in the Elvis era, I forget just what a big deal he was and continues to be. Scores of gold and platinum records line the hallways. Many of his stage costumes are displayed as well.

1956 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible.
Although not huge, the car museum is stocked with a number of pristine and interesting vehicles.

Paying visitors also get to shuffle by Elvis' grave. Elvis has indeed left this mortal coil.

I am glad I went, but wouldn't bother going back, even on someone else's nickle. 

Ground Zero is actually in one of Clarksdale's nicer buildings.
Perhaps the highlight of my Memphis visit – other than climbing behind the wheel of the redesigned Sonata – was the lunch stop on our driving day. We paused for a little midday nourishment at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Anyone with a background in Blues, I am told, is aware of Ground Zero. It's a must-see stop on a journey along the Delta Blues corridor.

As we munched on barbecue and fried catfish, we were treated to a live performance by a rather exceptional Blues trio. The atmosphere was funky, the barbecue passable and the music stellar. 

Beale Street in Memphis on "Bike Night."
I made 30 or more round trips between Louisville, Kentucky and Las Cruces, New Mexico, which meant driving through Memphis a lot in the seventies. While working on the travel TV series “Discover America,” I had reason to fly into Memphis two or three times, but then hopped in a car and drove off somewhere else. This was the first time in my life I actually spent some real time in Memphis. I am impressed.

It was a quick two-night stay, but I enjoyed the experience. A longer Memphis visit is now on my bucket list.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sixty Nissans and Nashville's Broadway: I'm on Sensory Overload!

Nashville's Broadway.
I'm not the kind of guy who stays out honky tonkin' until all hours of the morning – at least not any more. I can go late and spring out of bed on time the next morning once in a while, but stringing two or three until-the-wee-hours nights together takes its toll. In the words of that profound poet Toby Keith: “I'm not as good as I once was, but I am as good once as I ever was.” Or something to that effect.

Filled with over-inflated bravado, I still manage the old saw: “I'll sleep when I'm dead,” when confronted with the choice of going out on the town with friends or heading to my hotel room to climb into my nice, cozy bed. However, as I creep closer to the “dead” thing, I'm paying an ever steeper price for my glibness.

I'm not simply realizing my mortality; I am smashing into the reality of it like Wylie Coyote rocketing into the tunnel painted on the side of a red-rock wall. And, it really smarts.

The Belle Meade mansion anchoring Nissan's Product Day event.
I am musing over this because I am freshly returned from Nissan's Product Day in Nashville where, when confronted with the choice of hitting the sack or hitting downtown's Broadway two nights in a row, I – true to form – chose the latter. 

The lobby area of Omni Nashville.
I arrived in Nashville late the afternoon of the first day. Nissan once again put us up at the Omni, just a couple of blocks off Broadway. Ideal housing for such an event, its main lounge is Barlines. It's arranged to spotlight live entertainment. When we're there with Nissan, the hospitality suite is a smaller bar just off the main room. It's sort of like being backstage. 

View of Barlines stage from the hospitality suite.
Sadly, World Cup games took center stage while we were there, postponing the afternoon's live music both days until the dinner hour. One of our bartenders told me they tried the first day of the World Cup to show the game on the big screen sans sound and keep the normal live-entertainment schedule. Several of the fans gathered to watch the game threw a tantrum. 

Barlines is the ideal room to listen to some live music.
Fans of American football are quite accustomed to watching a specific game in a multi-screen sports bar without the benefit of hearing the commentary. Apparently, though, in soccer, the game is so nuanced even a diehard fan can't keep up with what's going on without a commentator filling in the blanks. “Oh, they are running this way; now they are running that way. Oh my, Soandso is down, rolling around holding his knee, but no foul was called. They are running this way and now that way. Soandso attempted a score, but (The “of course” here is implied.) he missed. Now they are running this way and now that way....” How could a fan possibly keep up with all that breath-taking action on his own? I suspect with soccer fans' penchant for rioting, the Omni didn't want to take any chances and rolled over for them. So, we missed out on some good live music.

Why, yes, I'd like to familiarize myself with four bourbons I've never tasted before.
What we didn't miss out on was a terrific selection of local craft brews and distilled potables. I was particularly smitten with Franklin-based Turtle Anarchy's Portly Stout. We also got a mini bourbon tasting of four boutique bourbons. Here, it was Virginia-distilled John J. Bowman Single Barrel that knocked me out. 

Some pickin' and grinnin' at Robert's Western World.
Nissan whisked us off to an Italian joint called Moto for dinner that evening. Everything served family style was good, but the meatball appetizer was boffo. After dinner several of us meandered to Broadway where we partied into the night at Robert's Western World. Great music and cold beer. What more could you ask for?

Clare Bowen took us into lunch.
On day two we shuttled our way to one of Belle Meade's many mansions. This one, it turned out, plays the role of the home of TV's “Nashville” character Rayna Jaymes. And, “Nashville” star Clare Bowen entertained us with a short pre-lunch concert. Cute, friendly and talented, she proved a wonderful midday break.

Nissan assembled some 60 examples of its vehicles for our amusement and edification. 

Mmmmm...the GT-R.
When exposed to such full-line product opportunities, I concentrate on things that I don't typically get to drive. In this case, I gravitated to the high-roof NV Cargo Van, the NV200 Taxi, and the Nismo versions of its cars like the Juke and GT-R. I also took a swing at what is essentially the Maxima Nismo mule. It's the testbed for a Nismo-like suspension in Maxima.

Nissan NV Cargo Van High Roof.
In my limited tests of the NV Cargo and Passenger Vans, I am always impressed with their civility and user friendliness. The high-roof version of the NV Cargo Van is chock full of creative features making its customization to fit nearly any need a simple proposition. The NYC taxi cab was just fun, but it's easy to see why it was so warmly received in New York.

Juke Nismo.
Nismo is Nissan's souped-up trim line. Finding the “Nismo” badge on any Nissan promises a great time behind the wheel. Even the quirky Juke with the Nismo once over morphs into an enthusiast machine. It should come as no surprise that I love driving the GT-R. My week with this asphalt gobbler last year numbers among my favorite experiences from more than 25 years in this business. The Nismo version, however, is another step up the performance ladder from the vanilla GT-R. It'll set you back $150,000 – which is why one isn't sitting in my driveway every day – but it's only money, right?

After dinner, the party moved to Legend's.
Dinner that evening was at Nashville's Watermark. Specializing in upscale southern food, it was wonderful. Of course, after dinner we once again adjourned to Broadway. Our little band of merrymakers was somewhat smaller for round two than the night before.

Let's, two, three, four, one, two, three.....
We walked into Legends as the bands were changing. A couple of cold beers later, the second-shift band broke into song. A little dancing was in order. I am 100% “white boy” on the dance floor. It's not pretty. I realize my shortcomings; consequently, I must be well lubricated before tripping the light fandango. The issue is, once I am sufficiently lubricated, my balance and judgment are in serious jeopardy. Cherise with Nissan was my victim. As always, she was a good sport about it; not squealing too loudly as I danced on her feet as well as mine. I hope she is healed for her wedding in a couple of weeks.

Get a good look. You'll never see me on a Karaoke stage again.
We headed out of Legend's, embarking on a several-block walk. Had I known where we were going, I might have opted to head back to the Omni. We wound up at the Wild Beaver Bar for Karaoke night. Ugh. I typically avoid Karaoke at all costs, but, my will power gone several beers earlier,  I was swept to Wild Beaver by a wave of drunks.

Had they been passing out trophies for pure guts, several of our little band would have returned home a winner. For talent? Not so much. I even got on stage for a group sing. I was so far along by this point, I have no clue what we sang, but, like everyone else, I sang my heart out.

I walked into my room at the Omni at 2:30 a.m. I had an early flight out that morning and set my alarm for 6:15. By the time I reached Greenville-Spartanburg Airport around 1:30 p.m., I felt as though I had been on the red-eye from Maui.

Having fun is hard.

(NOTE: I have since been reminded our Karaoke belt out was Buffett's "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw." A few of us, at least, managed the first part of that directive.)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Taking the Redesigned 2015 Subaru Outback to Task in Oregon's High Desert

Redesigned 2015 Subaru Outback.
I'm not the kind of guy who gets jaded after years and years of being entertained and informed by car companies. In many respects, I still approach most media car launches wide eyed and full of anticipation. After more than 25 years, I still love what I do and appreciate when carmakers include me in their events.

It's a simple fact, though, some carmakers do it better than others. It may be a function of budget, but more often than not, it has to do with attitude. Some carmakers view their media outreach as a chore to be avoided at all costs, virtually ignoring media whenever possible.

Subaru is on the other end of the spectrum as one of a handful of car manufacturers still approaching media with a degree of enthusiasm and creativity. 

I recently spent four days in Oregon with Subaru being immersed in all things Outback.

Outrageously important to Subaru, Outback is its second-best selling vehicle behind the larger Forester. Arguably the first crossover and certainly the original “sport utility wagon,” it really put Subaru on the map. The redesigned 2015 Outback is the fifth generation of this popular git'r-done wagon.

Subaru chose the Bend, Oregon area to show off its next Outback. Bend itself looks like the giant display floor in an interactive Outback museum. Every intersection, parking lot and trail head is brimming with examples of Outback's four previous generations. They are like rolling kudzu overwhelming the Oregon vehicle landscape. 

Brasada Ranch entrance.
Those of us flying into Oregon arrived by way of Redmond, Oregon's airport. Subaru then whisked us the 14 miles to Brasada Ranch about 20 miles outside of Bend. “Ranch” isn't quite an accurate descriptor of this 1,800-acre property. It would be like calling a Four Seasons a motel. I've stayed at a number of guest ranches: some rather rustic and others remarkably upscale. Brasada definitely falls into the upscale bracket. It offers a golf course, spa, fitness center, as well as horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking and so forth.

Once upon a time it was a sheep farm called the Shumway Ranch. Apparently when new owners decided to transform it into a resort, some sharp marketing type decided people capable of ponying up more than $800 per night would be more likely to do that at a joint called Brasada Ranch rather than Shumway Ranch. I'm no marketing genius, but I concur.

No matter the name, the view of the snow-covered Cascade Mountain peaks is breathtaking. Most of us spent our nights in the Sage Canyon Cabins. Again, “cabin” is a bit misleading. These were anything but cabin-esque. Subaru bunked us two to a unit. We each had a large bedroom and bath, but shared a great room including a full kitchen, dining room and lounge area. 

The common area in my cabin.
Because the property is so sprawling, each cabin was assigned its own golf cart. I usually left the cart to my roomie and walked to most functions, but did avail myself of the electrified transport more than once. 

On the second day, Subaru mapped out a drive route intentionally designed to show off the 2015 Outback's all-wheel-drive prowess. Much of the road surface was dirt or gravel. Although its generous 8.7-inch ground clearance rarely came into play, Outback's capability off the asphalt was nothing short of impressive. But here's the thing, thanks to sharing some of its AWD engineering with the WRX STI, on paved roads it grips in the corners like a go cart. What? Who'da thunk?

Outback cabin.
My driving buddy and I piloted both the four- and six-cylinder versions. Yes, I really like the power and acceleration of the six, but would buy the four-cylinder if given the choice. It delivers a robust 175 horsepower, but still managed to earn an EPA-estimated combined-mpg rating of 28 mpg. And remember, that's with AWD!

The six-cylinder generates 256 horsepower and delivers 22 mpg in combined driving.

A tad bigger on the outside results in nearly every interior dimension being larger. Scads of new technology and safety features are either standard or optional: rearview camera, blind-spot detection, lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert. Front-seat-cushion airbags deploy in frontal crashes to help keep passengers from submarining under the dashboard. EyeSight utilizes stereo-camera technology, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and lane-departure warning technology to warn the driver of an impending frontal crash and even bringing the car to a full stop if the driver fails to respond.

Ah, the good life at Lake Billy Chinook.
Our midday driving break for lunch was at Lake Billy Chinook. There we chowed down on sandwiches, enjoying the view.

Dinner that evening was a few miles away from our cabins on one of the ranch's mountain peaks. More than 20 of us chose to take a trail ride (on the Outback Trail, no less) to dinner. Our guides separated us into groups of five and spread out our departures to minimize the dust. This part of Oregon is high desert and “dry” doesn't begin to describe it. 

Save a horse, ride a cowboy....
I hadn't been on a horse in about a year. I did bring my riding boots and riding gloves with me. My horse Sunny was compact, but spirited. I was able to mount him without standing on something – rare for little old me. When I first mounted him, one of the wranglers told me that he was very responsive and would go when prodded. A couple of times on the trail I nudged his flanks with my heels and go he did. I'd love to put him in a trailer and haul him with me to Eatons' Ranch in Wyoming this September. I liked this horse!

I've shot sunsets all over the country and this is easily among the best.

After dinner we adjourned to an outdoor lounge area where we witnessed a spectacular sunset. Good sense had our band of intrepid cowboys going back to the lodging area by car. 

I accepted Subaru's invitation to stay an additional day to go white-water rafting on the Deschutes River. I characterize that experience as bracing.

Although long – Redmond and Greenville/Spartanburg airports are both a bit off the beaten path – my flights home were uneventful.

A fitting end to a glorious week!