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!

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.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Biting Off More Than I Can Chew? Web Site Development Isn't for the Meek

I'm not the kind of guy who jumps into new technology. I'm no Luddite, but I just moved up to a smart phone last year and I am close to being totally baffled by the intricacies of social media. I am admitting this – anyone who knows me already at least suspected as much – as a preface to telling you that for the past three or four days I've been up to my armpits in Web site building. 

Oh, Lordy, my head hurts.

I'd mulled over the idea of creating a Greenville-centric site for several years. My enthusiasm for the idea ebbed and flowed as my paying work would increase or drop off. At the beginning of the year, I finally decided to pull the trigger on the project. But, where to start?

I dusted off my Rolodex and found the card of the graphic artist we used when I was editing car magazines at American Media. He and I worked on a project that I brought him in on four or five years ago. I know we work well together and he seemed like a logical person to, if nothing else, give me a shove in the right direction. We met for breakfast at Delray Beach's Boston's one Saturday while I was on one of my South Florida boondoggles. He agreed to help me come up with a logo of some sort. He also suggested I have his stepson, who actually works for a Web developer in Boca, to build my site as a side job. It made perfect sense to me.

I walked away from that meeting convinced that I would get a jump start on this project, while putting off the steep climb up the learning curve that was ahead of me. I am a slacker first and foremost.

I bought a domain name and paid about $130 for a year's worth of hosting. I thought at this point all I would have to do is put together a little content to get things started. Sometimes I crack myself up.

No, my young Web-building savant informed me, I needed to choose a theme. But, I want you to do that! No such luck. He provided the URL to a site that sells themes by the boxcar load. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of themes available priced from $35 to $100. I looked at roughly 20 of them before narrowing it down to two. I informed my builder that I would be happy with either as long as they could fulfill our needs.

With the decision making and check writing pretty much out of the way, I began to write some content. Clear sailing from here, right? Yeah, not so much. 

I received an e-mail requesting a diagram of how the pages would be arranged to include a hierarchy of pages. What? It makes perfect sense now that I'm more deeply involved in the process, but at the time, it was just one more thing pulling me away from the writing that I wanted to do.

Not much evolved for the next 60 days. Eventually, a mock up of the home page would come up when I typed in the URL, but that was about it. Meanwhile, I'm wasting money on hosting. My weekly inquiries as to progress were answered with a litany of excuses: work, school, traveling and so forth.

I finally decided the foot dragging was my fault; I hadn't provided sufficient leadership, I surmised. I spent an afternoon laying out a home page, and putting together the copy and photos for the pages I envisioned. I emailed those to him. Two more weeks passed without any progress.

Finally, two weeks ago he e-mailed me that the project was much bigger than he originally thought and either he would need to bail or I could double the agreed on price and he would finish. That didn't seem to make much sense to me. Actually, I hadn't paid him a nickle yet. We agreed on about half of the original amount and parted company. 

Finally this past weekend, I waded into this thing. I've been reading tutorials for Wordpress and sort of feeling my way along. What it's taken me three days to accomplish, no doubt, Boy Wonder could have knocked out in four hours with me looking over his shoulder.

I'm not happy with what I have at this point, but it's not terrible for a guy who has very little clue what he's doing. I suspect I will have to pay someone to show me how to do a couple of the things that I'm stuck on and can't seem to find any instructions for.

But, I think I'm finally at a point where all I need do is create some new copy every week and plug it into the appropriate spots. I hope, I hope, I hope.....

It's at 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Little Track Time in the All-New Lexus RC

I'm not the kind of guy who gets all giddy over driving on a race track. Truth be told: I'd much rather spend the day off roading than taking laps at a track. Don't get me wrong; zipping around a track is fun, but it's not my favorite thing. Fortunately, in my line of nonwork, I occasionally get to off road as well as clocking some track time.

My latest track experience was courtesy of Lexus. Showing off its all-new RC to some media types a few weeks ago, it chose the Monticello Motor Club in New York for the lion's share of the day's driving. We did spend about two hours motoring RCs to the track from the Ritz Carlton in West Plains where Lexus boarded the press for the one night it hosted us. But, the bulk of the day was spent at MMC.

MMC is a private race track where well-heeled members pay exorbitant sums to belong and have access to the track. These weekend track warriors are high-end sports-car gentry of sorts. If I had that sort of dough to indulge myself, I'd have a yacht crewed by babes in thong bikinis or a private jet with a stripper pole, but that's just me. I suppose I should be glad there are people happy to underwrite such an enterprise because it's then available for paycheck-to-paycheck schlubs like me to use as a carmaker's guest. 

The meticulously maintained facility itself is fairly spectacular. Located about 90 miles from NYC, it consists of 4.1 miles of road-course track located on 175 wooded acres. There are 22 turns and 450 feet of elevation changes. There is a five-mile off-road course, as well as a 0.6-mile go-kart track. Members enjoy a clubhouse with a bar, dining and lounge areas. There are temperature-controlled garages and car storage. It's everything a person, bored and needing more after two hours of playing “Need for Speed Rivals” on Xbox, could possibly want.

Although they broke up the longest straightaway for our visit – a prudent move indeed – we otherwise used the track to its fullest capacity.

Over the years, some have bellyached about the blandness of some Lexus and Toyota styling. Such a charge won't be leveled at the RC. A two-door 2+2 coupe, RC is sleek and chiseled. Available in two basic flavors – RC 350 and RC F – it adds a sporty dimension to those on the market for an IS-sized sport coupe.

As the $43,715 RC 350, it comes with the familial 306-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 found in the IS 350 and GS 350. This is plenty of get-up-and-go for most drivers under most conditions. Lexus uses an eight-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission to turn the rear wheels. This marriage is good for 22 mpg in combined driving. The base version of the new coupe relies on comfort and luxury to win the hearts and minds of its owners. Sure it handles well with uber-responsive steering, but it is aimed more at drivers wanting to look the part of “boy racer” rather than acting the part. There is an F-Sport version that butches things up a bit with bigger wheels, sport suspension, rear-wheel steering and more supportive seats.

RC F cockpit.
Those wishing to straighten the twisties and rip the paint off of the fences it passes will want to pony up $63,325 for the RC F. This brute gets a 467-horsepower 5-liter V8 with the same eight-speed tranny. Hitting 60 from a standstill requires 4.4seconds; yet, it still gets 19 mpg in combined driving.You can even turn off the stability control for hair-on-fire trips around the track.

Both RCs are packed full of high-tech geegaws and over-the-top goodies.

I probably took a dozen laps of the track, mostly in the RC-F. It is really a car engineered for driving fast for people who haven't been trained to drive fast. It's pretty damn forgiving. 

For someone who can take or leave driving on a race track, I was impressed with the RC-F's poise, agility, speed and stability.