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, November 30, 2015

Aspen in the Off Season: The 2016 Kia Optima, Sheriff's Deputy Basile, Another Fixed Contest and, Of Course, Craft Beer!

I'm not the kind of guy that digs in his heels when a carmaker attempts to book him tickets on an airline on which he has no clout, but if I can finagle a way to fly my-airline-of-choice Delta, I am not beyond doing it. Truth be told: I'm not high enough in the media pecking order to demand much of anything. I'm the Oliver Twist of motoring journalists, holding out my pathetic little bowl and uttering “Please, sir, I want some more.”

It tugs at your heart strings, doesn't it?

I'm too old and have been around too long – way too long by some people's calculation – to fly across time zones on an airline for which I am just one more body in a 150-body mass of faceless travelers. If something goes wrong, as it often does, I want a little status as leverage in the problem solving. A couple of years ago when my Delta red-eye flight from LAX to Atlanta was canceled at the last minute due to weather, I managed to parlay my status into a meal voucher and a free night's lodging at a nearby hotel; although, Delta's policy is not to provide any compensation for weather-related delays or cancellations. When things go south, airline status does matter.

My creativity was seriously challenged this past November when Kia invited me to the media launch of its redesigned 2016 Optima near Aspen, Colorado. You see, for roughly nine months out of the year, Delta doesn't service Aspen. November is one of those months. It doesn't fly there itself, nor does it have an arrangement with a regional carrier. My choice was to turn down the invite or fly United. I wasn't happy with either solution. 

A bit of noodling over the problem and a couple of conversations with my potential driving partner for the event provided a remedy: Fly Delta into Denver, arrange a press-fleet car and drive the 200 miles from Denver airport to the Viceroy Snowmass Resort. Brilliant!

Denver has a vendor that moves around cars to the area's auto media. I arranged a Volvo V60 AWD Wagon with them last December when I flew into Denver and drove to my sister's in Los Lunas, NM. This time around, they provided a Nissan Rogue for my slog to Aspen.

The 200-mile distance between Denver and Snowmass – 80 percent of which is I-70 – would lead you to believe you could drive it in three or so hours. Well, not so much. I-70 was under repair for a total of perhaps 60 miles. One repair area would end and speeds would near 70 mph for a mile or two before encountering the next repair slow down. The final 30 miles is on Rt. 82, which is a state highway brimming with traffic lights. Drive time was something closer to four hours plus. That's the glass-is-half-empty description of my drive.

Vail Brewing Company.
The glass-is-half-full story is that the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. It was nothing short of glorious. About two hours into this Colorado odyssey I made a quick stop in Vail, not to top off the Rogue's fuel tank, satisfy a personal biological imperative nor have a bite to eat. Nope. I pulled into the freshly minted Vail Brewing Company to check things out. Conversing with the bartender, I discovered the owners of this new brewery are actually from Greenville. My, my, it is a small world after all. Sadly, they weren't there during my exploratory visit.

The living area in my hotel room.
My curiosity satisfied, I resumed my drive, arriving at the event hotel mid afternoon. The Viceroy Snowmass Resort is a skiing hotel of the first order. Roughly 11 miles from downtown Aspen and 4 miles from central Snowmass, it is ideally situated for the skiing enthusiast. As a craft-beer-drinking enthusiast, I found it centrally located as well. Rates in the off season begin at $375 per night for Studio guestrooms, building to $2,200 for Four Bedroom units. My room was huge with a six-seat dinning table and two bathrooms. Yes, I had become – even if only temporarily – a member of the bathroom one-percenters. 

Viceroy Snowmass Resort.
Kia operated a well-stocked hospitality suite. There were actually a few local craft beers in the cooler. Kia is one of the few carmakers that still throws a media launch as though it's something special. Rather than striking out somewhere, my buddy and I hung out in hospitality, had a craft beer or two and took a few hits from the oxygen bar. Dinner that first evening was poolside at the hotel. Then it was back to hospitality for some after-dinner antics.

On day two, we were immersed in all things 2016 Optima: first with an hour's worth of in-depth tutorials on design, engineering and marketing, then with a multi-hour drive around the Aspen area.

Here are some key takeaways. Assembled in Georgia, the next-gen Optima is slightly larger than the sedan it replaces: roughly a half inch longer in wheelbase, height and length. It's also about an inch wider. All of this translates into more head and legroom, as well as slightly more trunk space. There are three four-cylinder engine options (2.4-liter, 2-liter turbo and an all-new 1.6-liter turbo) and five trim levels.

Kia expects its two turbos to account for about 50 percent of Optima sales. The new 178-horsepower 1.6L turbo is the most fuel efficient posting a government-estimated 28 mpg city/30 highway and 32 combined. It's mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. 

Kia offers its high-tech Uvo system with all manner of features like Geo-fencing and Curfew Alert for concerned parents, as well as all sorts of smartphone apps. Optima is the first Kia offering an available Harman/Kardon QuantumLogic7 surround-sound system with 10 speakers. Every Optima comes with a rearview camera with upper grades also offering a 360-degree camera display. Also available is the full suite of safety technologies like front-collision warning, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and so on. Auto high beams and adaptive headlamps that point into curves are new options. 

Hard at work.
There's nothing like spending some serious wheel time on the winding mountain roads of Colorado to provide a true feel of a car's capabilities. The new Optima's stiffer suspension was apparent in attacking the twisties. A fun car to drive, Optima continues Kia's value position in the market. Pricing begins at $21,840 and moves northward to $35,790.

In more than 25 years of participating in these carmaker media events, I'm happy to say that I had never been pulled over by the local constabulary for a motoring infraction of any stripe. Well, not until this one. As we approached some nameless Colorado town, my driving partner and I were yucking it up over something or other and I totally missed the signs announcing a decrease in the speed limit from 55 to 45 to 35. Suddenly I looked into my rearview mirror to see rotating red and blue lights. I eased over onto the shoulder, switched off the ignition, pulled my wallet out of my pocket and rolled down the window.

Seconds later I was confronted with Lake County Sheriff's Deputy David Basile. Explaining that he pulled me over for doing 50 in a 35 zone, he requested my license, proof of insurance and registration. I admitted that I could have been exceeding the limit because I simply didn't know. He thanked me for my candor and returned to his car.

As we sat waiting for the deputy's return, a few of our fellow media types went roaring by honking, waving and generally enjoying my misfortune. Roughly 10 minutes passed before Deputy Basile reappeared at my window. He apologized for taking so long and then said that the reason was, he was having trouble running my Optima's plate. Not surprising. Carmakers have stacks of “Manufacturer” plates they can screw on to any of their cars. I explained this to the deputy and added that we were on a media ride and drive. He then asked of all the Optimas going by were part of the event. I affirmed they were.

He then asked, “Are all these people going to give you shit the rest of the day?”

“Why, yes they are,” my driving partner and I replied in unison.

“I think that's punishment enough,” he said as he handed back my paperwork.

He presented me with a warning, admonishing me to go forth and sin no more. He also provided me with his business card.

Apparently the deputy and his supervisor tracked down the Kia PR folks at the hotel, thanking them for bringing some business into the area in the off season, but requesting that they rein us in a bit. All is well that ends well. It should be no surprise that I am now a huge fan of the Lake County Sheriff's Office. 

My driving partner Keith and me at the oxygen bar.

Having spent a good part of the day somewhere above 10,000 feet, my first stop back at the hospitality suite was the oxygen bar. Ten minutes sucking the high oxygen mix cleared my head and set the stage for a bit of partying the rest of the day.

Dinner that evening was at Aspen's Chef's Club. This is a restaurant in which some of the area chefs chosen by Food & Wine as the most-promising up-and-coming plan and prepare the menu items on a rotating basis. No clue who was wrangling the food the night we were there, but it was wonderful.

Back at the hospitality suite it was finally time for this event's version of the Olympic Games Figure Skating medal awards or, as I like to affectionately call it, “Bulls**t!” Kia always throws a contest in conjunction with its media-launch ride and drives. This particular contest involved snapping a photo of anything, mating it with a creative and/or funny caption. Although these contests always have rules, they are more like suggestions. Judging is totally subjective and cheating is widely encouraged. This can be a benefit or a curse.

My driving partner and I decided that we would plant the story that I had indeed received a ticket for my infraction that amounted to $350. An attempt to gain some sympathy points from the judges, it was, sadly, foiled by the Sheriff's phone call. We had snapped a photo earlier in the day of me pulled up next to an abandoned police car and waving my arms. To this we attached an uproariously humorous caption, which now escapes me, and submitted it.

Is there a problem, officer?
In what has become a blatant fix in these contests, we were awarded an honorable mention. To this I say, bulls**t! This is my third or fourth honorable mention in Kia contests. I am like the Harold Stassen of Kia-event competitions. (If you are unfamiliar with Harold Stassen, my children, look him up.) Even cheating we couldn't seem to get the ball over the goal line. I was shocked, appalled and, dare I say, dismayed!

I do like the redesigned Optima, though.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Miami International Auto Show: No Better Reason to Visit South Florida in the Fall!

I'm not the kind of guy who needs an excuse to head to South Florida. Just because I no longer wish to live there doesn't mean I don't want to visit and visit often. I do and I do. So, when the Miami International Auto Show (MIAS) reaches out with an invite to its extravaganza thrown the first week of November each year, I'm all over it.

When I actually lived in South Florida – Palm Beach County to be more precise – I always looked forward to this show because it represented my one annual foray into South Beach. Some car company – Chrysler more often than not – would invite me down for dinner the evening before the show's media day and put me up somewhere on Collins Avenue for the night. No respectable PR wonk travels all the way to South Beach from Detroit, or some similar snow-belt city, without partying well into the early morning. I have countless war stories involving these Miami Beach all nighters. In my estimation, Miami Beach has some of the best night life in the world, but, alas, it's expensive. Enjoying it on someone else's nickle is about the only way a working stiff can sample its smorgasbord of restaurants and bars. 

2016 Toyota Tacoma.
MIAS flew me into Fort Lauderdale the day before the show opened, which also happened to be media-day eve. MIAS was my kick-off event for a 14-day stretch of travel away from home. Consequently, I was dragging along a suitcase too large to carry on the plane. When I landed, Toyota had a version of its redesigned 2016 Tacoma waiting for me. Somehow I managed to alley-oop my 48-pound bag into its back seat. I slugged my way through the tsunami of I-95 traffic down to the Sagamore Hotel where the show was sheltering me for the next two nights. 

Although the Sagamore is in the heart of South Beach and right on the sand, its rooms are respectably priced this time of year. Room rates begin around $250 with all the service charges and taxes included. Overnight valet parking on the other hand – as with every nearby beach hotel – will set you back a round or two of drinks at the bar. Fortunately, MIAS largesse included stabling my Tacoma.

I arrived too late to take advantage of the beach. It was nearly 5 p.m. when I finally checked in and found my room. I had a little free time before the Mazda/Ally Auto media-welcome reception at the Raleigh Hotel a couple of blocks up the street, but filled it with unpacking, showering and generally making myself presentable.

As always, the opening-night reception was a rollicking great time. Drinks and appetizers at sunset is a terrific way to end the day and begin the auto-show festivities. 

A shuttle whisked us off for the short jaunt to the nearby Miami Beach Convention Center around 8:15 on Friday morning. I say, “us,” but in truth, I was the only one who rallied for the earliest shuttle. I was surrounded by amateurs. The kickoff press conference was at the “Cars Meet Art” exhibit. This is the second year for this unique display that pairs well-known street artists with 10 new vehicles serving as their canvass. 

The show also features other one-of-a-kind displays, such as “Topless in Miami.” This area shows off cars that were in the Southern Automotive Media Association's Topless in Miami competition. It's the ideal way to become familiar with South Florida's signature car: the droptop. 

Every 30 minutes for the rest of the day, we media types walked from one carmaker's display to another to hear representatives from Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Ford, Ram and others talk about their freshest products.

This was the 45th MIAS and it featured hundreds of new cars in state-of-the-art displays. It was the first auto-show appearance of the redesigned Nissan Altima and 2016 Ram Rebel. MIAS also provides show visitors with the opportunity to drive a number of new cars from such manufacturers as Kia, Honda, Chevy, Toyota, Buick, Ford and GMC. A presentation of the 190-member South Florida Automobile Dealers Association, the show attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors during its 10-day run. 

With the manufacturer press conferences wrapping up about 3 p.m., we had more than two hours to kill before the Toyota-sponsored closing reception. What to do? What to do? Perhaps a cold beer would be the answer. One of the locals suggested my craft-beer-drinking buddy and I would be well served at the Abbey Brewing Company on 16th Street, about six blocks from the convention center. Despite the 95-degree temperature and Florida humidity, we struck out for this highly recommended joint. 

Just one section of the Abbey Brewery's whiskey and bourbon selection.
What a find! If someone hadn't suggested it, I would have never found it, let alone gone in. A hole-in-the-wall of the first order, it is almost invisible from the street. Inside is every bit as unassuming. The beer, however, was topnotch and it offers one of the most comprehensive selections of whiskeys, bourbons and ryes I've stumbled across. I recommend the Brother Dan's Double, as well as the Father Theodore's Stout. 

The view from the Juvia Miami Beach.
Ubering our way back to the Sagamore, we dumped all the flotsam we acquired at the show before walking the half block to the Lure Fishbar at the Loews Hotel for the Toyota reception. By 7:30, we were on our way to the Hyundai-sponsored dinner at Juvia Miami Beach where we ate, danced and drank the night away.

Nope, I don't need an excuse to visit South Florida, but you might. If so, mark your calendar for next year when the show will run a couple of months earlier than usual from September 9th through the 18th. Cool cars and hot sand, it's Miami Beach at its best!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Making House-Cleaning History: Uncle Russ Buys a New Vacuum

I'm not the kind of guy who brags about doing a few chores around the house. But, my doing almost anything in the vein of housekeeping is an alert-the-media event. Frequent readers (and you two know who you are) of this blog are all too familiar with my distaste for dusting, sweeping and scouring. As long as my feet don't stick to the kitchen floor, I am pretty much at peace with things.

I have discovered over the years, however, that I am more prone to take care of chores for which I have the proper tools. I am much less likely to remove an electric switch face plate when touching up the paint in a room if I have to use the end of a butter knife to remove the screws. But, give me a flat-head screw driver and I'm all over it. Things like that.

My Greenville house is small by most standards. Depending on whom you talk to or which Greenville County web site you consult, it is between 1,000 and 1,300 square feet crammed into three levels. It's more vertical then horizontal. The flooring is carpet and real hardwood with some linoleum tossed in for good measure. If you ever had the energy or motivation to measure it all out, I think you would discover it's roughly 50/50 between carpet and hard surfaces.

The structure's diminutive size and my notorious lack of motivation notwithstanding, I do like to occasionally vacuum the floors. My go-to weapon for this epic waste of my time was a Hoover upright vacuum that I am convinced was manufactured when its namesake was in the White House. Actually, it's sufficiently modern that it has a filter and dirt catcher as opposed to a bag, but that's little consolation when I have to wrestle its 25 pounds up and down the stairs.

Although it does an acceptable job of sucking particles out of the carpet, it mostly just blows bits and pieces of refuse from one corner of the hard-floor rooms to the other, much as a leaf blower chases leaves and such from your sidewalk into the street or on to a neighbor's lawn.

“Dream big,” I always say; so, for the past year or so, I have been surfing the web looking at vacuum cleaners. I like the idea of sweeping the floor with a machine from the mind of an English inventor – love those hand dryers in some public restrooms – but I can;t see my way clear to spend $400 on an appliance that I will barely use. Consequently, a Dyson never made my wish list. No, I've been searching on the cheap.

I liked what I read about Shark vacuums. Receiving rave reviews from a variety of sources, they average less than half the cost of most Dyson vacuums. Less than half works for me.

My most recent monthly book of sale items from Costco featured a Shark Rocket for $30 off Costco's already comparatively low price of $159. Now or never, I concluded.

The first day of the sale was Sunday, November 1. Ideal timing, I thought. When you live in the buckle of the Bible Belt, the best time to shop is Sunday morning. Even Costco is relatively empty. Yes, I admit, rather than going to church, I headed to Costco. That this was also the first day of changing the clock, which no one bothered alerting me to, and I arrived at Costco an hour before it opened, didn't deter me. Nope. I was on a mission. I amused myself for that hour wandering the aisles of a nearby grocery store.

Arriving back at Costco at the appointed 10 a.m. opening, I breezed in grabbing a 50-gallon drum of Virginia Peanuts and the box containing my target Shark Rocket. I was the first person in the check-out line. I located my items, checked out and was back in my car in less than five minutes. Had I been at a Costco in South Florida, simply finding a parking spot would have required 15 minutes.

Arriving home, I quickly assembled my new toy. Weighing less than 10 pounds, I wielded it like a fencing foil. Light, maneuverable, and remarkably powerful, I attacked first the hardwood and then some carpet. Before it was all over with, I had vacuumed the entire house and scared the bejeebers out of the cat.

I installed the Shark's wall holder on the wall of my downstairs coat closet and hung it up. I trust it will be there in 60 or so days when I decide to vacuum again.