Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

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.

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