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, January 27, 2015

No Pretender to the Brand: Jeep Renegade Is a Full-Fledged Off-Road Ninja

I'm not the kind of guy to ever turn down a serious bit of off roading – even when I might not be sure that the vehicle in question is really an off-roader. That was the situation when Jeep gave me the nod for a dash to the California coast in late January for some wheel time in its all-new compact-SUV Renegade.

You see, carmakers are always tinkering with their brand in the hope of expanding the customer base. Mainstream brands move upmarket trying to hang on to their customers as long as they can as they grow more affluent. The Kia K900 leaps to mind. Luxury marques keep creating smaller, less pricey vehicles trying to lure younger, less affluent buyers. The strategy is to hook'em early and then hang on to them as they buy ever-more expensive cars. Think: Mercedes CLA and BMW 2 Series. 

Creating an all-new entry-level SUV provided Jeep with the opportunity to launch some watered-down pretender to the brand, slapping a bargain-basement price tag on it and luring buyers, who always wanted a Jeep, but couldn't afford it, into buying one.

But, Jeep didn't do that. Nope; the Renegade is a remarkably capable compact SUV with all the Jeep off-road engineering and technology that could be crammed into it. I know this because Jeep didn't pull any punches with its off-roading venue: Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area that's about 50 miles southeast of San Jose.

Jeep provided two courses for testing the Renegade's mettle. One a steep up-hill-down-hill course that not only showcased Renegade's ability to claw its way up a steep grade, but also presented an opportunity to really test its Hill Descent mode. The other course had a wide variety of off-road hazards. Renegade performed brilliantly on both.

Not only did this compact Jeep shine when off the pavement, it was pretty impressive grabbing the asphalt on road, too. Composed and pretty damn nimble for an off-road slugger, Renegade proved to be surprisingly agile in the twisties.

Shoppers have two engine choices: a 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder in the Sport and Latitude trims, and a 180-horsepower 2.4-liter Tigershark four-cylinder standard in the Limited and Trailhawk trims. A six-speed manual is standard in 2WD and 4x4 Renegades with the 1.4L engine; while a nine-speed automatic comes standard with the 2WD and 4x4 2.4L. Jeep has yet to disclose fuel-economy numbers, but promises highway fuel economy of at least 30 mpg for the 2.4L. 

The Trailhawk gets Jeep's Active Drive Low 4WD system with a crawl mode. Other trim levels use the Jeep Active Drive ($2,000 option). Both include Jeep Selec-Terrain with the choice of modes, such as Snow and Mud.

There is nothing cheesy about the interior. It's well assembled and comfortable. Everything is logically located. The A-pillar is thicker than most and does somewhat hamper outward vision, but it's an understandable compromise helping Renegade achieve its structural rigidity. A two-piece “My Sky” sunroof can be removed, opening much of the roof to the open air.

There's lots of standard and available technology. Chrysler's Uconnect with a five-inch touchscreen is standard on all but the base Sport model, as is a rearview camera.

Base pricing begins at $17,995 for the 2WD Sport and works its way up to $25,995 for the 4x4 Trailhawk. Renegades will begin trickling into showrooms in late February.

Jeep hosted this little Renegade hoedown at the Hotel Valencia Santana Row in San Jose. I flew in and out of San Francisco's airport, roughly 45 minutes away. Characterized by large guest rooms and friendly service, Hotel Valencia is in the trendy Santana Row district. The area is composed of restaurants, upscale shopping and pricey residences. 

On night one, Jeep staged dinner at the SP2 Restaurant. The food was good and the bar sported a couple of decent ryes, which the bartenders encouraged us to sample. The second night was right up my alley: LB Steakhouse. I do like red meat and the steak was grilled to perfection.

The bar at SP2.
 I guess if I were to sum up Renegade I'd say, it may be small in size, but it's huge in heart and capability.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My No. 1 Obsession of This Season's Crop of New TV Shows

McDermott and Q on "Stalker."
I'm not the kind of guy who refuses to be away from home on particular nights because of being hooked on some TV series. That's mostly because I have a DVR and record everything I even think I might want to watch. If that weren't the case – and with what ATT Uverse charges me per month for my HD channels and DVR it might not be the case much longer – one of the shows I wouldn't miss is the CBS series “Stalker.” Wow; am I ever hooked!

My DVR provides such freedom from being tied to the TV that I had to look up the series just now to know that it airs on Wednesday nights. 

The "Stalker" squad.
I somehow missed the first episode when it aired, but then set the trusty DVR to record the rest of the series. I think I had 10 or 11 episodes piled up by the time I finally got around to watching the pilot on my PC. I then binge watched all the recorded episodes over three nights.

The premise is fairly simple: A squad of detectives specialize in stalking crimes. There, that's it. Of course nothing is ever that simple on TV. There are a couple of back stories afoot, too. One involves Dylan McDermott's character Jack Larson, who has a checkered past with another police force and is estranged from his wife. His ex also just happens to be with the DA's office. Then there is the squad leader Beth Davis, played by Maggie Q, who has a tragic past and is currently being stalked herself by a nut-job she came across stalking someone on another case. 

A fangless Klaveno.
Another key character is Mariana Klaveno's Janice Lawrence. “True Blood” fans will know her as Lorena. She looks pretty good without fangs.

One of the elements that keeps me coming back is the music track for the last three or four minutes of the show. It's an eerie cover of some 80s hit. Sometimes I have to listen for a minute or two before I recognize which song it is. “One Way or Another,” “I Want You to Want Me” and Hungry Like the Wolf” are particularly good. In fact, I searched around on iTunes, Amazon Digital and other places to find seven or eight of them, which I downloaded.

Is it “Masterpiece Theater?” Nope, but it is good TV.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Little Wine, a Little Craft Beer and a Whole Lot of Nissan's Murano: A Napa Valley Outing

Historically my Decembers are relatively quiet; usually very boring, really. Even my dot-com clients that require a steady stream of content grow relatively quiet the last month of the year. December usually provides an opportunity to catch up with other projects or just decompress a bit. Not so this past December.

As recently as October I was bemoaning to fellow motoring-press road warriors that I was going to miss Platinum Medallion status with Delta by a significant amount. Boy, was I wrong. Suddenly the invites to December media events came pouring in. When the smoke cleared, I wound up being away from home 21 days of the month, including my 8-day Christmas vacation at my sister's in New Mexico. I was awash in media trips: three to the California coast and one to Austin, Texas. I wound up blowing past the 75,000-mile requirement for Delta's Platinum status with more than 1,000 miles to spare.

Sandwiched into my travel schedule between events for the Chevrolet Trax and Kia Sorento was an excursion to California's Napa Valley for the Nissan Murano.

Nissan makes Nashville its North American home base, building roughly 85% of the product it sells in the U.S. in this country. Among that number is Murano, assembled at Nissan's plant in Canton, Mississippi. Having visited that plant, I can tell you it's quite amazing.

Here're a few things you should know about the third-generation Murano: AWD is available and about 55% of Muranos going out showroom doors have been AWD. It features an all-new IT system with smart phone-esque controls. A power panoramic moonroof is available. With a coefficient of drag of 0.31, it cheats the wind roughly 16% more effectively than the previous Murano. This contributes to the nearly 20% improvement in the new Murano's fuel efficiency: It delivers an EPA-estimated 24 mpg in combined city/highway driving. Nissan offers it in four trim levels all using a 260-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 to turn the wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Some other facts: It has an active grille shutter to enhance mileage. A power rear liftgate and heated outboard mirrors are available. Front and outboard rear seats are based on a NASA design to reduce fatigue. A rearview camera is standard. Pricing begins at $29,560 for the FWD S and climbs to $40,600 for the Platinum AWD model.

This is a seriously good-looking crossover. Nissan views Murano as sort of a traveling sitting room, and is targeting empty nesters. It is uber spacious and comfortable (It has a best-in-class rear cargo volume of 39.6 cu.ft. with the seats in place and nearly 70 cu.ft. with the second-row seats down.). Nissan mapped out a drive route for us that took us to the Pacific coast, and included a variety of road and traffic conditions. I felt right at home behind the wheel, as well as in the front-passenger seat. This is a remarkably hospitable cabin. 

My cottage at The Carneros Inn.
Nissan put us up at The Carneros Inn in the town of Napa. It's owned by Plumpjack winery. I've stayed there a few times and always found it comfortable and relaxing. Most Napa visitors are in search of a lifestyle getaway. The Caneros Inn provides such an experience. The bulk of the guest accommodations are stylishly furnished cottages. 

My cottage's outdoor fireplace.
 Each has both indoor and outdoor fireplaces and an outdoor tub. The convertible shower can be rapidly converted from indoor to outdoor as well. I took my morning showers indoors, but made the switch to outdoors when showering for dinner. The tiled bathroom floor was heated. I could have gotten very used to this place.

Nothing like an outdoor shower in 50-degree temps to get the blood circulating!
I had to chuckle, though. As with all upper-crust California lodgings, The Carneros Inn encourages guests to save water by hanging towels back on their racks after each use, indicating a willingness to reuse rather than laundering them. Here's the thing: Coaxing hot water out of the shower is something akin to sucking a watermelon through a knothole. I would have to start the water running at least 10 minutes before I was ready to step into the shower to ensure at least some degree of warm water. When I was in a rush, I would turn on every hot-water faucet in the place to hurry the process to eight minutes. I can't imagine washing my towels required less water than a hot shower. 

Now you might think that being in Napa meant swimming in wine. Well, I like wine. I like it a lot, but my love of craft beers motivates me to seek them out wherever my travels take me. My driving partner and I managed to sneak off for an hour or two and visit a couple of nearby craft breweries after the organized ride and drive. We visited the Hispanic-owned Carneros Brewing Company where I enjoyed a Morena Ale. Then we were off to Napa Smith Brewery. We had both been to Napa Smith previously when Subaru rented the entire place out to host a dinner last year for its WRX media event. There we had its Nitro Bourbon Barrel-Aged Porter. Good stuff!

With Nissan marketing Murano as a lifestyle crossover, the choice of a venue to introduce it to the media couldn't have been better than Napa. Great wine and wonderful craft beers: I was in Heaven!