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!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Ah, Asheville, We Hardly Know Ya: Hyundai Brings 2016 Tucson to the Beer Capital of the Carolinas

I'm not the kind of guy who gushes over a place I don't like. San Francisco and Las Vegas are both cities some people rave about, but I wouldn't set foot in either if it wasn't for carmakers hosting an occasional event there. Well, I guess I'd go to San Francisco, but only because it's the closest airport to Napa and Sonoma.

So, when I say that I really like Asheville, NC, you know that indeed I do.

The Catawba Brewery tasting room is two blocks from the Grand Bohemian Hotel.
A major part of what I like about it is its medley of craft, as well as major, breweries. Twenty-seven craft breweries are scattered about the Asheville area. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have their east-of-the-Mississippi breweries in Asheville, too. Asheville is unquestionably the beer capital of the Carolinas – maybe even the entire Southeast.

What's not to like for a lover of craft beers?
A temple to beer: the Sierra Nevada Brewery near Asheville.
Sure, there are some other sites in Asheville, such as the Biltmore Estate – yawn – but for me it's the breweries and taprooms. Actually, the Biltmore Estate has become a tourist trap of the first order, fully capable of making the folks running Elvis' Graceland blush with embarrassment. It costs $60 simply to walk through the gate. That qualifies you to spend between $10 and $150 for various tours. Then there's a restaurant and gift shop. Cha-ching!

Although Asheville is just up the road from me (less than 90 minutes by car), I don't visit often enough. So, I was excited when Hyundai announced it would hold its Southeast-regional media introduction of the redesigned third-generation Tucson where? In Asheville.

Grand Bohemian's lobby.
Hyundai put us up at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Biltmore Village adjacent to the Biltmore Estate. This is the same hotel where Hyundai housed us for a similar event for the previous-generation Tucson. It's a wonderful property run by Marriott. Its Red Stagg Restaurant, where we dined our first night, is terrific. The taprooms for three craft breweries are well within easy walking distance: Hi-Wire, Catawba and French Broad Brewing.

Our ride and drive took us through the Blue Ridge Mountains. We even did a little stint on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There were loads of twists and turns. Although the Tucson isn't billed as a sport CUV, it performed well on roads best suited for high-performance sports cars. 

What my driving partner and I first noticed about the Tucson is just how quiet it is. We didn't need to talk ourselves into believing it is quiet, we both reached the same conclusion three minutes into our drive.

About three inches longer than the version it replaces, the 2016 Tucson sports the now familial Hyundai hexagonal-shaped grille. Headlights, taillights, daytime-running lights and the optional door-handle approach lamps are LEDs. 
A 164-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder engine linked to a driver-shiftable six-speed automatic transmission powers the $22,700 base SE grade. Other higher-grade versions use a 174-horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mated to an all-new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (an automatic of sorts) to turn the front wheels. AWD is available on all trim levels.

The base engine delivers a government-estimated 23 mpg in the city, 31 on the highway and 26 in combined city-highway driving. The $26,150 Sport and $29,900 Limited grades deliver 25 mpg in the city, 30 highway and 27 combined. Offering the best fuel economy is the $24,150 Eco trim with 26 mpg city, 33 highway and 29 combined.

Another thing we noticed right off the bat is the extra roominess of the cabin. The longer, wider exterior translates into more passenger space. Hyundai also upgraded the contents, adding soft-touch materials to most interior surfaces.

Among the many high-end technologies Tucson offers is Automatic Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Detection, available as an option on Limited models. When traveling between 15 and 50 miles per hour, it will bring the Tucson to a complete stop when sensing an object or person in its path.
Phil's Bar-B-Que Pit.

Our ride-and-drive lunch stop was Phil's Bar-B-Que Pit on NC Highway 9 in Black Mountain. The pulled pork was nothing short of awesome. Although we couldn't partake, it also offers several area craft brews on tap.

Hyundai has certainly gentrified Tucson. Like a pair of suede running shoes, it looks upscale, but is fully capable of performing duties typically assigned to less refined CUVs. Oh, and it's covered by that great Hyundai warranty too.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Redsigned Mazda Miata Is as Good as It Ever Was!

I'm not the kind of guy who can turn down an opportunity to drive a convertible in Southern California. When Mazda issued an invitation to its national press launch for the totally redesigned MX-5 in Westlake Village, Calif., I was all over it. It didn't hurt that Mazda was putting us up in the Four Seasons with three nearby craft breweries within 10-minutes of the hotel. The only thing that could have made the invite more tempting is if there had been an In-N-Out Burger in the Four Seasons' lobby.

Once upon a time, it wasn't uncommon for a carmaker media event to span four days: two days of travel and two days for the meat of the program – often that signaled some extracurricular activities, such as rafting, sightseeing and so forth being incorporated into the program. Today, four-day events are as rare as a Kardashian in a spelling bee. This Mazda program, however, was of the four-day variety. That's because not only did it include the Miata (Yes, it's still legal to call the MX-5, Miata.), but also the all-new CX-3 crossover. 

Four Seasons Westlake Village.
I arrived at LAX around noon on Tuesday. Mazda had a car and driver awaiting my arrival. Despite my lounging in the backseat, slugging through the scrum of LA traffic for 40 miles to the Four Seasons Westlake Village was brutal, requiring roughly 65 minutes. I don't know how many LA commuters each day are discovered in their cars alongside the road with their wrists slit or their brains blown out by their own hand, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were a bunch. If I had sneaked a pocket knife through airport security, I'm not sure I would have survived the trip. 
The Pagoda Lawn where we had dinner our final night.
Other than some water-pressure and plumbing issues, my hotel room was everything I expected. As is typically the case with Four Seasons, service and pampering are high on every staff member's job description. Dinners on the second and third nights were at the hotel. Because we were in Southern California, these meals were served buffet style outside. Not my favorite thing, but some how I endured. 
Malibu Family Wines was the site of our opening-ceremonies dinner.
On our first night, Mazda hosted us at Malibu Family Wines. I didn't even know there are vineyards in Malibu. Although I'm not sure it was exactly Malibu, but at least it was Malibu-ish. To be honest, I'm not sure where we wound up. I believe we were at the winery's Saddlerock Ranch facility, but I'm not even sure about that. I guess I should have paid more attention. All I know is there was a giraffe, grape vines, vintage travel trailers, more grape vines and a guitar player. 

Nap time at Malibu Family Wines.
Mazda put us on some amazing roads for both ride-and-drive days. It divided us media types into two groups. My group drove the Miata on the first day and the CX-3 on the second. It was like eating dessert before dinner. If you asked me to sum up my opinion of the entire trip in one sentence it would be, I am absolutely blown away by the redesigned Miata. Most carmakers chase perfection, Mazda has managed to actually nip at its heels with the redesigned Miata.
Mazda also provided a day of driving its all-new CX-3 crossover.
This is the fourth-generation Miata. The original arrived in 1989. The rear-wheel-drive Miata has never been about speed nor acceleration. It has always been about handling, steering, braking and user-friendly performance. Not straying from that heritage, the 2016 version comes with a 155-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder engine versus the 116-horsepower 1.6-liter four in the 1989 model. Back then it had 14-inch wheels and tipped the scale at just over 2,100 pounds. Today the base Miata Sport has 16-inch wheels and weighs just over 2,300 pounds. I have friends who've added more pounds in the last 27 years.

Miata is the fourth member of Mazda's lineup to employ its SkyActiv technologies to reduce weight and improve engine efficiency while increasing fuel economy. A six-speed automatic transmission is available in all three grades (Sport, Club and Grand Touring), but only someone physically unable to drive a manual should go that route. The six-speed manual is precise and ideally mated to the 2L four-banger. On the California mountain twisties, I just left it in fourth gear as I powered through the turns. A chisel would have been required to chip the silly grin off my face as I pulled over to hand over the tiller to my driving partner after a couple of hours behind the wheel. 

Fuel economy is up roughly 25 percent from the last generation Miata. With the manual tranny the government estimate is 27 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.

At $24,915, the Sport grade comes well stocked. The mid-level Club at $28,600 will probably be the best selling of the trims. It's also the sportiest. In addition to getting a sport-tuned suspension as standard, it's the only grade qualifying for the option package with Brembo brakes and BBS 17-inch alloy wheels.

Every trim level is loaded with goodies, but only the top-of-the-line Grand Touring gets the full array of active safety features, such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning and automatic high-beam control.

Oh, and you can raise and lower the manually operated top with one hand while sitting in the car at a red light. Sweet!

It was two wonderful days of driving, but, without a doubt, the Miata was the star of the show. 
Ladyface Ale Company's tasting room.
I have buddies who indulge me by venturing out to a nearby craft brewery after a day of driving on these events. I also have a couple of buddies who are every bit as craft-beer crazy as I, looking forward to these end-of-the-day brewery adventures. My driving partner on this trip is among the latter. That was good because we began our quest mid-afternoon on our arrival day at Ladyface Ale Company in Agoura Hills. After a $5 fare on Uber, we arrived in plenty of time to sip a couple of beers. I had two Picture City Porters; while my pal had a Bravado Brown with Raspberry (No, I'm not kidding.) and a Bravado Sour Brown.

On a mission on this trip to score a couple of 22-oz. bottles of Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout, my first chore after checking into the hotel was to have the concierge make some calls to find a liquor store close by selling it. She found one less than three miles away. That was our first end-of-the-day stop the second day. As we were leaving Wade's Wines, we discovered that was also the location of Sundowner Brewery – another brewery on my list. Quite the coinkydink, no? 
Some of the guest taps at Twisted Oak Tavern.

The problem, though, was that the brewery tasting room didn't open for another 30 minutes. We opted to head down the road to the Twisted Oak Tavern with its own LAB brews as well as others on tap. I tried a glass of LAB's Imperial Red Rye that was tasty, before taking on a pint of Peanut Butter Milk Stout that happened to be among its 30 or so guest taps. I think my partner in crime had a LAB Russian Imperial Stout and then a PB Milk Stout.

Finally on the third day we launched our after-drive sampling at the Institution Ale Company in Camarillo. The tasting room is smallish, but the staff was fun and accommodating. I enjoyed a Reverie Summer Rye and a Restraint Maple Brown Ale. My secretary tossed back an Imperial Dissonance Imperial Golden Stout and something else that will ever remain a mystery.
Some of the gang at Sundowner Brewery.
Our last stop on our beer tour was the Sundowner Brewery that we missed on day two. What a blast it was. Just an amazing staff. Laughing nearly nonstop, we could barely sip our beers. We were short of time – that damn 4:30 opening don't ya know – so we only had one. Mine was a Dubble Trubble, which is a traditional Belgian Dubble that was magnificent. My valet? I don't have a clue what he quaffed, but it was probably something with fruit and an umbrella.

Although my trip back to South Carolina was less than fun filled, all in all this was a great trip. Oh, and did I mention the Miata is a terrific car?