Monday, December 28, 2009

2010 hybrid promotes Escape to 'Greenland'

Sacramento, California – Somehow, Ford removed the sound of distant sirens from its Ford Escape Hybrid sport-utility vehicle.

OK, let me explain.

When I reviewed the 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid, I complained that, at slow speeds, the electric motor emitted a sound that was a spot-on imitation of a siren approaching from perhaps a quarter-mile away. Needless to say, on city streets, this kept my heart rate at fairly lofty levels.

After a week in the 2010 Escape Hybrid, the limited edition with front-wheel drive, there were no sounds of sirens. And frankly, I liked this green Escape much more than I did the 2007 version. Call it progress.

My ride all but shouted green, not only in the environmental sense but in the literal sense; a “Kiwi Green” metallic paint job backed by a special leafy hybrid badge did the trick.

My Escape Hybrid, the third most-expensive of four trim levels starting at $32,260, was only slightly juiced up with options (the biggest being a $2,395 voice-activated navigation system) to bring the bottom line to $35,775. But for my money, which hasn’t been going too far in this sagging economy, that’s a fairly hefty bottom line for most consumers looking for a small SUV.

Again, with the Escape, it helps to do the math. You’re paying more than 30-grand for hybrid technology that’s going to save you at the gas pump. In the tester, that equated to 34 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. If you plan to keep the vehicle for a long time, the extra money you paid for the vehicle is going to come back to you a piece at a time. Over the long haul, you’ll likely do OK. And if your priority is protecting the planet, you’re probably not real worried about such fiscal matters.

But keep in mind that a gas-powered 2010 Ford Escape XLS with front-wheel drive starts at a mere $20,550, with fuel mileage ratings of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the open road. Like I said, get out your calculator and do the math if the budget is your top priority.

If you opt for the Escape Hybrid, you'll get that moment of concern when you turn the ignition key and nothing happens. Just make sure you look down at the message center behind the steering wheel, where you’ll see a digital readout telling you the vehicle is indeed ready to drive.

From there, the 2010 Escape Hybrid is a breeze, a willing and fuel-efficient SUV capable of taking on all road conditions, while hauling five passengers in relative comfort, or hauling a fair amount of cargo if you wish.

It’s a hybrid, but it’s no wimp. The tester displayed plenty of zip in the merge lane and snapped up to 70 miles per hour with no problem. Cruising at 70 mph felt silky smooth, and quiet.

Even climbing hills, you’re not going to find yourself screaming at the vehicle, “C’mon and get going already!” … Well, you might get antsy at the top of a very steep climb, but you’re going to get that in a gas-fueled four-banger anyway, so lighten up.

Serious highlight: Terrific 360-degree vision from the cockpit seat. And there’s a bonus: A new “integrated spotter mirror” on the outer corner of the exterior mirror. This supplement gives you a convex view that all but takes away the customary “blind spot.” In truth, I can’t remember the last time I drove a vehicle where I spent less time turning my head.

A generously equipped, easily understood interior adds to the total package, along with a similarly generous safety and security package. This Escape Hybrid stacks up as an ideal second family car to do some heavy grocery hauling and kid transporting. Young families should like it as well as a primary vehicle.

It’s not a big, horsepower-laden SUV, so don’t even go there. While the bottom line is somewhat pricey, this Escape Hybrid is precisely the kind of vehicle Ford should be producing for the increasingly economical masses. Maybe that’s why the company’s bottom line has been doing so well of late.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy holidays to all who stay in motion

Christmas preparations, family and friends are taking up much of my time right now, but I'm already looking forward to reviewing more new motor vehicles and offering my two cents on motor sports and the auto industry after Christmas and throughout 2010.

It occurs to me that I have much to be grateful for, not the least of which is the opportunity to share my words and thoughts with people who share my love of all things automotive. To you and yours, happy holidays, and here's hoping your 2010 is happy, prosperous and safe.

Thanks for taking the time to tune in. I'm sure there will plenty to keep us all busy in 2010.

With warmest regards.....MARK GLOVER

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New for 2010: Danica and the NASCAR boys

Sacramento, California – After IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick announced this week that she was making a part-time jump into NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series, JR Motorsports General Manager Kelley Earnhardt offered up this assessment: “I expect her to be eaten up by the wolves.”

He quickly said he was only kidding, but one wonders just how much.

I, too, fear the worst for Patrick, but it has nothing to do with her driving ability. On that score, she has the goods. Unfortunately, she’s going to be playing in an arena that tends to chew up IndyCar talent. Secondarily, the fact that she is a female will likely make her an even more inviting target in that culture.

I’m pleased that the 27-year-old DP will be dicing in the IndyCar Series in the immediate future, driving for Andretti Autosport. Needless to say, she has been good for the series, arguably becoming the face of it.

Getting the lion’s share of attention has its drawbacks, however. When she announced her deal with JR Motorsports, the online message boards quickly filled up with anger-fueled postings that she is overrated and over-hyped. Some suggested that she’s done nothing compared with her Andretti Autosport teammates. She has only one IndyCar win the past two years -- in Japan in 2008 – the critics whined.

Frankly, these claims are misinformed and flat wrong. You have to wonder if these gripers even follow motorsports.

Here’s the evidence: Patrick indeed has 1 win in 81 IndyCar races, but she’s had 16 top-five finishes – a pretty good batting average. She had five top-five finishes this year alone, finishing fifth in the IndyCar Series standings.

By comparison, Marco Andretti has one win in 65 starts, and that one victory came in 2006. Tony Kanaan has won precisely one race the past two seasons. Hideki Mutoh has not a single race win in two seasons with Andretti Autosport. Why isn’t anyone complaining about his lack of victories?

Because he’s not Danica Patrick, that’s why. By the way, Patrick’s fifth in the IndyCar series standings this year topped all three of her teammates.

The simple fact is that DP can drive an Indy car. She’s proven that. Her third-place drive in a less-than-top-tier car at this year’s Indianapolis 500 was masterful. She’s not A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti, but then nobody else in IndyCar right now is in that galaxy.

What I worry about with Patrick in NASCAR is the same fate that was suffered by Dario Franchitti with his ill-advised jump to NASCAR in 2008. It was an experience steeped in massive frustration and broken bones. All Franchitti did in 2009 is come back and win the IndyCar Series title he won in 2007.

And while 2006 Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. has shown some improvement after two full seasons in NASCAR, he’s never really been in late-race contention for a win. That’s a tough go for a guy who was a consistent champion in the Indy cars.

One of the things that crushes the spirit of IndyCar Series competitors going to NASCAR is that so much depends on cooperation among drivers on the track. That’s tough to swallow when you’ve spent years getting to the top of open-wheel competition by driving your guts out. If you don’t have cooperation among drivers at many of NASCAR’s tracks – or if you don’t have an exceptionally prepared car – you’re not going to prosper.

And woe unto him/her who angers fellow NASCAR competitors. That not only kills all possibility of cooperation, it typically gets you punted into the wall.

Would a young NASCAR up-and-comer or a longtime NASCAR veteran push Patrick into the fence just because she’s a woman who has received massive amounts of media attention for the past five years? Puh-leeze, it’s almost a given.

And this really bites if you’re a race driver. Danica will have to exercise extreme patience on the track, and getting in the face of an offending driver after the race, with TV cameras rolling, won’t play well with the NASCAR crowd. Given Patrick’s typically furious competitive approach, turning the other cheek will not come easy.

The best thing that can happen for DP is to absorb her NASCAR race team’s wisdom, notch some high finishes early and stay clean on the track. Just finishing races will enhance her NASCAR cred.

Who knows? Maybe she’ll take the Nationwide Series by storm. That would be cool, but I sense a rough road ahead.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

GMC Terrain reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 GMC Terrain FWD SLT-2 appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Ralliart looks the part of the pocket rocket

This review originally published in the November edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California--mg

Sacramento, California -- Mitsubishi, which routinely jolts us to attention with a glorious sporty vehicle, has another head-turner in the all-new-for-2010 Lancer Sportback Ralliart.

Here’s a five-passenger car that really should not be called a wagon or a hatchback. Call it a pocket rocket, because that’s the soul of this ride, a blaster that recalls the early Volkswagen GTI efforts.

My black tester was menacing enough with a massive grille opening that looked like its design prototype was a great white shark. Aerodynamic lines roll to the back, where one finds an integrated roof wing. Just when you’re admiring the back end’s airflow advantages, you open up the sloping rear door to discover a wide space capable of swallowing large, oddly-shaped cargo (52.7 cubic feet of capacity).

Very nice. But this car is built to haul something other than cargo.

The Lancer Sportback Ralliart comes with a turbocharged 2-liter in-line 4 with 237 horsepower and 253 foot-pounds of torque. Let me tell you how that worked in heavy highway traffic: Fantastic.

Man, it felt good to blow off a Mercedes or two in my black beauty tester. Throttle blips dusted off most every other vehicle within reach. Engine response was instant, and the Ralliart handled with delightful agility. This is a car you can get aggressive with, and one that might lead you to have a roadside conversation with a highway patrolman. Buyer beware.

Also beware that the Sportback Ralliart is not a car that enjoys anything below 30 miles per hour. In fact, it bucks and snorts in protest at slow speeds. Also understand that the degree of sport tuning is so elevated that engine power dramatically drops down the instant you take your foot off the gas. It’s so pronounced that you’ll get a little shove forward in the cockpit. This will be no surprise, however, to veteran performance car pilots.

Front seats are molded in the style of contemporary race cars, which is to say there are pronounced, rounded vertical edges holding you in place. If you’re the husky type, those edges are going to be a pain in the back, literally.

Back-seat space is tight, with two being the recommended max; I wouldn’t try to fit three folks back there. The one in the middle is likely going to suffer.

Interior controls are nicely arranged, and the creature comforts are fine. I think the Sportback Ralliart is a car best enjoyed by two – two who don’t mind a little G-force as they unwind the Ralliart on the open road.

The starting price is a somewhat hefty $27,590, but gas mileage for this turbo-fired hot hatch is a fairly nice 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Not surprisingly, most of the standard goodies apply to looks and performance: traction control, hill-start assist, stability control, 18-inch alloy wheels, side sill extensions, aluminum pedals and an aluminum hood with a heat-extractor vent to name just a few.

Standard safety features include an advanced dual front air bag supplemental restraint system with occupant sensors, front seat-mounted side-impact air bags and side curtain air bags, plus a driver's knee air bag. The Sportback Ralliart has a built-in anti-theft system with immobilizer key. High-intensity headlamps are available.

Customizers could have a ball with this Ralliart. Lots of sexy angles to work with, and you could hide a Mini Cooper in that front grille. The turbo engine gets pretty noisy at full song, so you might want to deflect some of that engine noise if you’re wanting an audio system upgrade.

All in all, this is a nice offering from Mitsubishi, a company that has been taking its lumps of late. Think of the Ralliart as a nice addition from an automaker that won over a lot of hearts with its Eclipse model.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Got hot? Audi A5 droptop has a plentiful supply

Sacramento, California – Audi has this thing about making its cars look racetrack-ready.

Seriously, the automaker could take a crate of oranges and make it look like it’s ready to take the green flag at Daytona. My latest test model is a case in point.

Technically, the model is a (big breath now) 2010 Audi A5 2.0T Quattro Tiptronic Cabriolet. Translation: It’s a hot-looking Audi convertible with a kickin’ turbo power source and a state-of-the-art transmission system.

My Deep Sea Blue-colored tester looked ready to rip just sitting in its parking space. ”You’ll like this car,” said the man who delivered it. Turns out he was a wise prophet indeed.

On the roll, the A5 made me feel as secure as a toddler’s favorite blanket. Rock-solid on the road and agile when asked, the A5 cruised smoothly through crowded interstate traffic and on tight city streets. Climbs were a breeze and twisty roads seemed to straighten out with slight flicks on the steering wheel.

The turbo four-cylinder power plant was rated at 211 horsepower, and yet it did not dish up its juice like a brute. Accelerations were firm, steady and righteous, still delivering the desired result of quickly moving the A5 out of harm’s way when my right foot pressed the accelerator. The six-speed Tiptronic transmission was the smoothest performer in recent memory.

The A5 posted straight-A grades in all rolling conditions.

One minor gripe: I couldn’t see around even medium-size sport-utility vehicles riding in front of me. But I wouldn’t change the A5’s sleek, low-slung look just to solve that problem. A big-mouthed grille gives way to wind-slicing bodywork, with a nice wide stance in the back. Paint a number on it, and let’s go racing.

Interior comforts on the tester were numerous, even at the $44,100 starting price. My tester was dressed up with nearly obscene extras to bring the bottom line to $61,800. Suffice it to say that the interior cabin provided luxury accommodations as I blazed along the local roadways.

The A5’s security factor goes beyond its excellent handling. Safety and security systems ran the gamut, from knee airbags to energy-absorbing zones to active rollover protection. I’m pretty sure you’d have to really try to hurt yourself in this droptop.

By the way, the ultra-light, cloth acoustic roof on this cabrio folds in a mere 15 seconds, and it can be done on the fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Fuel mileage estimates are 20 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

There are seating surfaces behind the two front seats, but I’m not sure I know too many people above 10 years of age who would be comfortable in that cramped setting. In my heart, the A5 is a comfortable ride for two.

I know this is not everyone’s car. Putting down $45,000 or so on a performance convertible is not within everyone’s reach.

But for those who can afford the fare, it’s a treat. And I salute you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fun run in Ford's Fusion ... and a surprise inside

Sacramento, California – The Ford Fusion is not the type of car that inspires dragstrip dreams.

But that changed when I recently tested a Ford Fusion SEL – normally equipped with a 175-horsepower four-banger – with a surprise inside. The $1,610 addition was a 3-liter, 24-valve V-6 Duratec engine with 240 horsepower.

In human terms, this changed the car from Pee-wee Herman to LeBron James.

The Fusion went from being basic transportation to a certified freeway terror, made all the more interesting because no one expects to be dusted off by a Fusion.

This was fun.

Ripping the Fusion’s 3,300 pounds around local city/suburban streets and highways was a blast. This is not a put-down of Fusion drivers who like the in-line 4 engine and the excellent fuel mileage it gets (22 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the open road). But it is nice to know that you can get a Fusion with a little more oomph, especially when you spend your weekdays dicing in big-city commute traffic.

And hey, the fuel mileage on the six-cylinder power plant is pretty good, too. The advertised numbers are 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway.

Getting back to basics, it’s not hard to see why the Fusion is popular among consumers and part of the reason Ford just put up a near billion-dollar quarterly profit. It looks nice, aerodynamic in profile and saucy on the front with a three-tier grin of chrome.

What a concept: An affordable passenger car that doesn’t look cheap.

Inside, Fusion is a study in basic comfort and nicely thought-out simplicity. Front seats are comfortable, and they can be put forward to provide ample room in the back for three. And when you’re making room for those three in the back, the two folks in the front seats are not pressed against the dashboard. There are scores of cars that can’t make that claim.

The layout of interior controls can be mastered by a fifth-grader in quick order.

Interior/exterior standard goodies are generous. On the tester, that included 17-inch aluminum wheels, chromed exhaust tips, power heated mirrors, eight-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, leather-trimmed seats and steering wheel, tire pressure monitoring system and Ford’s SYNC audio/communication system.

The starting fare on the 2010 tester was $23,975, but that did not include the V-6 and an optional package that included a power moonroof, a 12-speaker sound system and a rearview video camera. All that added up to a bottom line of $28,105 on the sticker.

If you want a basic Fusion with four cylinders and fewer perks, the starting price is $19,620. And of course, you can get a hybrid version of the Fusion starting at $27,625. You can also get an even hotter-performing version of the Fusion, the V-6 Sport AWD, which is loaded with a 263 horsepower V-6. That one starts at $28,030.

Overall, the Fusion is a veritable variety shop capable of pleasing multiple desires. I kind of liked the version that looks meek but packs a heavyweight punch.

Now, where is that Corvette I just blew off?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's Ford's time to crow ... at least for now

Sacramento, California – With the Los Angeles Auto Show’s Dec. 4-13 run just days away from commencing, I’m recalling a little history from auto shows past.

Three years ago, General Motors chief Rick Wagoner mesmerized me and hundreds of other automotive journalists in attendance at the L.A. show’s Media Days. He looked strong and confident, laying out a bold GM future that would include cars fueled with gas-ethanol blends, advance gas-electric hybrid systems, plug-in hybrids and a mainstream electric car.

Just one year later, it was Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally’s turn to address media gathered for the L.A. show. He seemed marginally confident. And when he said the struggling automaker was on target to return to consistent profitability by 2009, there were audible chuckles from the throng of assembled motor media.

In short, it seemed two years ago that GM was doing things right, and Ford was trying to put a good face on a hobbled ship.

Before the first eggs-and-bacon media breakfast has been served this year at the Los Angeles Convention Center, this much is apparent: Ford is looking really good, and GM is the one looking hobbled … or perhaps crippled, depending on your perspective.

Wagoner is gone, although I suppose there’s some good karma in essentially being fired by the president of the United States.

As for Mulally, he was justifiably beaming when Ford Motor Co. recently announced quarterly earnings of nearly a billion bucks.

GM has been taking heat for raising prices and shedding brands, all the while taking a big public relations hit for taking government bailout money … while archrival Ford put up its big quarter sans bailout dough.

Welcome to the cyclical nature of the car business. A decade back, when GM was holding off Toyota as the world’s top automaker and making promising investments in the growing auto industry in China, the future seemed paved with gold. Now, the future seems paved with money to pay back.

There’s a lesson to be learned here.

Back when GM and Toyota were battling hard to claim the No. 1 automaker in the world label, serious auto people on the sidelines were wondering just what GM was doing. Did it really matter if Toyota passed GM? Did GM really need to preserve a large fleet of large sport-utility vehicles getting lousy gas mileage? Did GM really need to save some of its poor-performing divisions, just for the sake of boosting annual sales numbers?

Or to sum it up in one question: Didn’t GM realize it was sinking deeper into the money pit?

The company must have known the train was coming, with all its destructive force. The massive sums GM was paying out from past “what-were-you-thinking” contracts signed with the United Auto Workers were sobering enough. And when auto sales tanked, GM’s fortunes plunged like a bowling ball through whipped cream.

Ford seems to have it figured out now: V-6 engines, practical-size SUVs (see Ford Escape) and passenger cars (see Fusion and Focus, and the upcoming Fiesta) and the occasional attention-grabber (Mustang derivatives and the hot-performing Taurus SHO).

And yet, it could all turn around again within a few years. Maybe GM’s upcoming Volt will take off among gas pump-weary Americans looking for a daily no-gas commute. China’s auto market likely will rebound, if for no other reason than the Chinese economy is a force of nature. GM could benefit from that alone.

Ford mortgaged a lot assets to set its financial feet firmly on concrete. Will enough U.S. buyers stay away from those fuel-sipping Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai brands to enable Ford to keep up its pace? Time will tell.

For now, Ford has the bragging rights among America’s Big Three automakers. And given the numbers, you have to admit that it’s more like the Big Two, with Chrysler lagging far behind and swamped with a sea of troubles.

It’s Ford’s time to crow. Three years from now, who knows?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lancer pocket rocket reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lincoln MKT is a luxurious, smooth highway cruiser

Sacramento, California – When I first saw the all-new 2010 Lincoln MKT for the first time, I thought it was a hearse.

Wait, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just that my tester was painted serious black, had plenty of chrome and a long wheelbase (118 inches). The configuration looked like, well, it wouldn’t be too difficult to fit a body in the back.

This is where you have to get over that whole first impressions hang-up. It’s a good thing, too, because after a week in the MKT, I was impressed with its standing as an excellent long-road-trip vehicle. I was likewise impressed that it enhances Lincoln’s long-standing reputation for luxury and class.

Alas, I had to wonder why Lincoln chose now to introduce a 4,500-pound SUV with fuel-mileage ratings of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. And keep in mind that my front-driving MKT was the cheapest of three trim levels at a hefty starting price of $44,200.

Those aren’t exactly recession-buster numbers.

I came to the conclusion that it boiled down to the simple fact that this was a Lincoln – the undeniable luxury line of Ford. Lincoln has been producing pricey luxury models through boom and bust times. No reason to stop now. And according to Ford Motor Co.’s third quarter profits of nearly a billion bucks, who am I to argue?

Back on point: The MKT is big, and it feels big when you’re driving it. It’s a challenge to wheel around a tight parking lot, and you want to make sure you have clearance when you’re whipping the MKT around in crowded city traffic.

The good news is that the MKT has a rock-solid feel on the open road. It was as smooth as butter on the interstates. Seventy miles per hour felt like about 50 mph in the MKT, with nary a wiggle. The interior cabin was bank vault-quiet even on rough road surfaces. Kudos to Lincoln engineers on this vehicle’s highway capabilities.

With seating for up to seven, plenty of cargo room and plentiful in-vehicle entertainment features, the MKT is the prototype vehicle for the family road trip. Where was the MKT when I was a young father, for crying out loud?

From the driver’s cockpit, the MKT oozes class and expensive-looking materials. And yet the center stack of controls is not a confusing jumble of knobs and buttons. It’s easily managed by driver or front passenger. Interior seating room is decidedly generous.

High-tech goodies on the tested MKT included adaptive cruise control, collision warning system, braking enhancement system, active park-assist and Ford’s Blind Spot Information System (BLIS for short). BLIS comes in handy with the MKT, because cars on either side of the vehicle can disappear into that long wheelbase. The BLIS system includes warning lights in the exterior mirrors to let you know you have company on your flanks. It’s a nice security blanket to have during a heavy commute.

The tester’s 3.7-liter V-6 with 268 horsepower does a good job of driving the MKT, but it’s not a road-burner on hard acceleration. Likewise, it whines a bit on uphill climbs. If you can afford it, you might opt for the turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine that puts out 355 horses. That should be able to handle about anything.

Just so you know, an all-wheel drive MKT with the EcoBoost power plant starts at $49,200.

I noticed that Lincoln bills its new MKT as a full-size luxury crossover vehicle, but I think that stretches the point. For my money, it’s a luxury SUV … a nice one, to be sure.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Camaro's return even pleases a Mustang guy

This review originally published in the October edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California--mg

Sacramento, California -- My car-obsessed friend asked if I had a couple hours to spend unwinding his new 2010 Chevrolet Camaro.

He didn’t have to ask twice.

I’ve been waiting for the Camaro to come back almost from the minute General Motors pulled the plug on it in 2002. Like nearly everyone else, I didn’t believe for a second that the Camaro would disappear from the ranks of American pony car-dom. It was just a matter of waiting for the sequel.

Now that it’s here, I doubt that even the most die-hard Camaro purist hanging on to the memory of the 1967 Camaro has any reason to be upset. The new Camaro is a blast, literally and figuratively.

I don’t admit this lightly. I’m a longtime Mustang guy who earned his first driving license at the wheel of a 1965 Mustang, sans air pollution-control devices. I drove Mustangs regularly for the next 20 years, sniffing at Camaro owners.

But when the Camaro was gone in 2002, I missed it. Now that it’s back, I love it.

The reasons are simple: It looks great, feels great and scoots like scalded cat.

My short-term tester was the LT2 coupe, literally the middle ground car in the Camaro lineup. The sticker started at around $26,500 but the tester was juiced up with extras that put the bottom line at around $30,000.

For the price, the performance was superb. The Camaro moved smartly off the line from a standing start and proved remarkably nimble in all conditions. It took to slalom maneuvers like a world-champ skier. Keep in mind that my tester had the comparatively humble 3.6-liter V-6 with “only” 304 horsepower. I can only imagine what the big-daddy 6.2-liter V-8 with 426 ponies feels like. You might want to consider a neck brace to keep your head on with that power plant.

Walking up to the Camaro gives you the impression that it might be a sluggish beast on twisty roads. Yet the wide-stance visual is only that. My tester hugged the road lines with monorail-like smoothness even as I pressed the tires to lose their grip. Very impressive work on the suspension, even though it was somewhat stiff and transferred some road imperfections up my spine.

The interior cockpit combines jet-fighter ambiance with urban-commuter simplicity. Everything was within easy reach and easy to use, and veteran Camaro drivers will notice that the gauges are a style throwback to Camaros past. The gas gauge did not plunge despite my best efforts. The Camaro coupe with the V-6 lives up to its federal estimates of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

I was surprised how much exterior noise reached my ears in the Camaro’s cabin, especially given the degree of top-tier engineering put into this car. Perhaps the biggest drawback for me, however, was the lack of 360-degree visibility I had from the cockpit. In putting Camaro’s super-sexy lines together, the design gang left little window space to help the human eye. I found myself relying heavily on the interior/exterior mirrors.

The most-noteworthy thing about the new Camaro is how much attention you get driving it. Stopping at a light or in a parking spot is an open invitation to any interested party. I felt like I was running a one-man car show every time I stopped the vehicle. People leaned out of neighboring car windows or walked right up to the car on the street, calling out, “Is that the new Camaro?”

Well, yes, it is, and would you please get out of my way so I can drive now?

Alas, this is a minor inconvenience that goes with owning the 2010 Camaro. And sure, I’m sure it must feel good deep down to know that your ride has passed the coolness test among random passersby.

Customizers will find their mouths watering over the prospects offered by this ride. The Camaro is already seriously angled, giving it a stealth-fighter appearance even when it is standing still. Dropping more heat under the hood or molding that beautiful body into something seriously special is tempting, but for now, I’d just enjoy the car as it is.

Welcome back Camaro. Even the Mustang crowd salutes you.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Latest Mustang retains old-school charms

Sacramento, California – I remember when the going word for putting a few new touches on an existing model was a called a “freshening.” From several sources, I read that the 2010 Ford Mustang was “reskinned.”

Wow, now I’m really feeling old.

But then again, that’s OK. The Mustang is no spring chicken either, rolling into public view for the first time in 1964. And since I earned my first driving license in a 1965 Mustang, well, let’s just say that I go way back with Ford’s pony car.

Emotional attachment? You bet.

Best news about the 2010 model year “reskinning” … There’s no doubt that there’s a Mustang under that skin. Ford calls the updated exterior a “modern evolution of Mustang heritage.” I’m good with that. I like the Mustang’s basic low-price-muscle look. Praise to Ford for not messing with a good thing … like it did with the Ford Thunderbird.

Alas, that’s a discussion for another day.

My tester was the 2010 Mustang convertible with a 4-liter V-6, 210 horses of fun wrapped in a paint job that bespoke autumn gold. Unfortunately, my first day in the car dovetailed with the arrival of a monster, tree-bending rainstorm. Even so, I felt secure in the Mustang cockpit.

The car cut nicely through the driving rain and was sure-footed on the slick pavement. That’s a nice bonus in a car made to drive top-down in the California sunshine. On that latter score, the tester was wonderful. Acceleration poured out smoothly, and it was easy to get away from freeway car groups and enjoy some quiet time in my ride.

Super steering and an only slightly-too-stiff suspension were evident in uphill runs. The V-6 ate up inclined pieces of road like a champ. Yet the power plant was not an annoying screamer. Gas mileage was pretty good too, coming in slightly better than the advertised 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

If anything, the revised interior on the latest Mustang is the most aggressive ever. The sporty feel on the tester was enhanced by black, stitched seating surfaces, a jet-fighter center stack of controls and a throwback three-spoke steering wheel. Analog gauges were also done in a welcoming, old-school style.

Not sure why Ford opted for the light-blue dash and cupholder lighting. On the Mustang, it comes off as kind of wimpy. Dark-red might have been more like it.

It says here that the Mustang seats four, but longtime pony car fans will know that those two back seats are pretty much for show and small baggage. This Mustang convertible remains a cruise-dream for two. No shame in that.

Of course, there’s significantly more high-tech in the modern-day Mustang. That includes the Ford SYNC audio system. Once mastered, it’s a hoot, providing hours of entertainment and impressing passengers who marvel at your ability to control things via your voice.

Bottom line: Ford continues to produce Mustangs that keep a handle on Mustang lore, while showing off the latest in modern amenities. The power curve keeps going up, and the tested convertible had an ample supply for a mere $26,000 or so.

It’s a nice buy, for a young married couple or an boomer-oldster like myself who wants a peppy second car to unwind on the weekends.

Memo to Ford: Keep on making them.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2010 Camaro reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro LT2 Coupe appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Mercedes E550 coupe feels like blast from past

Sacramento, California – Can high horsepower, ridiculous luxury and a boatload of safety/security systems buy happiness?

Yes, if you’re talking about the 2010 Mercedes-Benz E550, a four-passenger coupe that brought back memories of robust M-Bs of yore.

Frankly, the car isn’t that much to look at, except the front end, with a wide-smiling grille, large integrated headlamps and a prominent Mercedes-Benz logo centered. But there are plenty of hot cars on the highway that will turn your quicker than the current E550.

From the cockpit, however, the E550 rises in class … and quickly.

The driver’s seat puts you in the lap of luxury, but you also get the sensation that you’ve strapped into the cockpit of stealth fighter jet. There’s a combo not easily pulled off.

Creature comforts abound with leather upholstery, a power/tilt/sliding sunroof, a blazing COMAND system anchored by eight speakers, 14-way power adjustable front seats and burled walnut trim.

Sweet, and secure too. Air bags surround all angles of the interior cabin (knee and pelvic bags are part of the package). They’re backed up by active head restraints, a driver-drowsiness monitor, a rollover sensor and Mercedes’ PRE SAFE system, which basically senses a collision before it happens and braces car and passengers accordingly.

It’s good to know that if you fall asleep or drive like an idiot that the car likely will save you. German engineering? Ja!

It’s all good sitting still. On the fly, the E550 is a heart-pumping thrill ride.

The 5.5-liter, 32-valve, V-8 engine churns out 382 horses and maxes 391 foot-pounds on the torque meter. Top torque rolls in as early as 2,800 revolutions per minute, which explains the 5-second zero-to-60 miles per hour clocking.

But it’s more than that. The seven-speed adaptive automatic transmission – you can operate it in clutchless-manual-style with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, by the way – just doesn’t quit on the quick trip up to 60 mph. It just keeps giving you more, seamlessly, to the point where you wonder if there is a top end. It’s a sensational rush.

Eighteen-inch all-season tires were nice and grippy, and the independent suspension system (front and rear) soaked up most of what the road had to offer, without being overly stiff. Perforated front brake discs with painted calipers did more than just look good. Stopping power was top-drawer, a thankful thing when I edged close to scaring myself on hard accelerations.

Happily, Mercedes-Benz seems to have a handle on the electrical glitches that were so annoying just a few years ago. I know M-B has packed a lot into its cars, but it used to be incredibly disheartening to have false-positive electrical warnings buzzing up in the message center. None of that happened this time around, and this E550 was packed with electric-dependent goodies. Kudos to Mercedes engineers on that score. I hope it holds up over the long-term.

In sum, the E550 comes off as a super-fun luxury coupe capable of stirring the souls of four passengers. It has the old Mercedes-Benz flash and dash, bolstered by state-of-the-art technology.

A nice mix starting at $54,000 and change.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A sterling champion ... and a cautionary tale

Sacramento, California – Scotsman Dario Franchitti clinching a second IndyCar Series championship in three years was a source of inspiration … and a cautionary tale.

How appropriate that the eminently likable Franchitti won the series’ second-biggest prize – behind the Indianapolis 500 – after a nightmare year in NASCAR. After winning both the IndyCar title and the Indy 500 in 2007, Franchitti opted to follow other open-wheel stars to the NASCAR ranks in 2008.

Big mistake.

Franchitti showed flashes of competitiveness but was ultimately smashed down by better-funded teams and ultra-aggressive NASCAR competitors. Franchitti also endured a cracked ankle in one of those late-hit NASCAR crashes that make you say, “What the hell?”

No such troubles in 2009. Franchitti was competitive right out of the gate back in IndyCar this year, due in no small part to the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Team, a machine the equal of Roger Penske’s juggernaut. The fact that Franchitti won what amounted to a fuel economy run in Saturday’s Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway takes nothing away from the race win and his body of work over the whole year.

Check the record books: Franchitti had some terribly bad breaks in his open-wheel racing past, denying him yet more series titles over time. This time around, it all clicked. And yeah, it felt good. Franchitti is a fine representative of the series.

Franchitti’s rags-to-riches run from NASCAR to IndyCar in 2008-09 offers up one additional point, that cautionary tale. Pay attention Danica Patrick.

What Franchitti went through in NASCAR in 2008 is dramatic evidence of how bad it can go for an open-wheel star in that series. The top-tier NASCAR series are dominated by hugely funded teams, and let’s face it, a lot depends on the drivers with the top teams cooperating with each other during races – especially the spotlighted oval races at Daytona and Talladega.

I know that NASCAR says it would love to have Danica join the family. Maybe that’s true. But based on history, I have to wonder how much cooperation Danica would get from NASCAR drivers (and fans) who still drum up the history of old Dixie, the cradle of the sport. You also have to wonder how many drivers would wait even a heartbeat to put her into the fence if she cut them off hard.

Just saying, having watched NASCAR for more than 40 years.

And take the case of former IndyCar star Sam Hornish Jr. Although he has shown strong progress over two years, Hornish has never competed for the win at the end of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. For someone with Patrick’s temperament, you have to wonder how long she could stand finishing mid-pack before she exploded.

Of course, it’s free country. If the contract language works, why can’t Danica drive in the IndyCar series and periodically hook it up in the NASCAR ranks? That would certainly be interesting. I’d watch it.

Personally, I’d rather see her make giant history at Indianapolis in the open-wheelers. Maybe that’s in the stars too. It will be interesting to see how it all sorts out for IndyCar's most recognizable face in 2010.

For now, congratulations to Dario.

LATE PIT STOP: Hats off to Penske and Co. for keeping it clean in the closing stages of the caution-free race at Homestead.

For those who did not see it, Franchitti won by conserving fuel and passing fellow championship contenders Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon when they had to pit in the closing laps. Had a caution flag come out in those closing laps, there’s a better-than-fair chance that Briscoe or Dixon would have fought it out for the title, because fuel conservation would have gone out the window under the slow caution laps.

Nobody said so, but I have to believe it must have occurred to Briscoe’s Penske teammate, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to just sort of scrape his car against the Homestead wall in the closing laps, bringing out a caution and giving Briscoe his shot.

It certainly would have occurred to me. Castroneves was well out of contention for the race win at that point, and who would have been the wiser if he had sort of slipped up the track and brushed the wall with, say, 15 laps to go?

Of course, nothing of the kind happened – a credit to the Penske organization and the people who compete in IndyCar. It was left to Franchitti, Dixon and Briscoe to decide it on the track in straight-up competition. As it should be.

That was not the case in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, when Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. deliberately crashed on team orders and helped teammate Fernando Alonso notch the win in that Formula One race. That bit of sportsmanship came home to bite Renault big-time this year, with enormous penalties handed down, including a lifetime ban for Renault team principal Flavio Briatore.

There’s a message in all this, the kind of message that most children figure out by the age of 5. For the IndyCar Series, the larger message is a moment of true sportsmanship in a ferociously competitive endeavor.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Prius remains gold standard for green cars

This review originally published in the September edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California--mg

Sacramento, California -- Being green used to be so simple.

The Toyota Prius is a classic example. Back at the dawn of the millennium, you could pony up your 20,000 bucks and get a Prius stuffed with gas-saving technology so sophisticated that the car probably was worth around $30,000.

Things have changed. The new, third-generation Prius is much more complex than its ancestors. And the pricing structure reflects that. Four trim levels are available for 2010, with Roman numerals leading your wallet up the price path. A 2010 Prius II starts at 22,000. A Prius V tips the scales at $27,270.

Sigh! My soul craves simplification in my old age. I’m not unlike that 1957 Chevy devotee. Yes, the cars weren’t as safe or well-engineered back then, but I miss that old-school rush of a single dazzling ride.

Enough sentiment. Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for the state-of-the-art in an affordable hybrid four-door, look no further than the Prius. I was frankly stunned by all that the test Prius IV had in it, even with a starting price of $25,800 and an eye-opening bottom line of $30,709 on the sticker.

Besides that price, the most attention-grabbing numbers on the sticker are 51 miles per gallon in the city and 48 mpg on the highway. Even now, those numbers make my mouth water, one year removed from the $80 gas pump fill-up in California.

But there’s more. You can dial the Prius up for “economy” mode or “power” mode. And there’s a huge difference between the two. Eco mode feels like your pushing through chest-high snow. Power mode makes the fuelish Prius feel like it was ingested with some Mini Cooper DNA.

The look of the Prius is more geared to the power mode. The wedge shape is pronounced on the front end and up at the roof’s peak, and the aerodynamic lines flowing to the back look capable of slicing the air as precise as a butcher’s blade.

The Prius is powered by a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder engine that gives you about 100 horses, mated with a permanent magnet synchronous motor, which does the heavy lifting on start-ups. The two systems combine to give you about 134 ponies. The ride is quiet and smooth, aided by a seamless continuously variable transmission.

Just don’t try taking on the Sierra Nevada in economy mode, because you’ll be all day. For serious gas-savers, however, there’s actually something called “EV-Drive Mode” that enables you to do slow speed driving solely on electric battery power for up to a mile. Now that’s some serious gas-saving.

The Prius interior is roomy and supremely functional. Mastering the controls is a snap. There’s a nice-sized information center atop the dash, which offers up feel-good information on when you’re saving fuel. I have a gripe with the horizontal bar/spoiler at the rear, which annoyingly cuts your rearview mirror view into two halves. Still, I suppose structural integrity at the rear end is a must.

Optional extras include a sliding glass moonroof with solar panels positioned over the seating area. Yes, I’m serious, and you can’t tell they’re solar panels until you get your face right down there on the roofline. The panels soak up the rays and power an electric circulation system that cools the Prius interior so you don’t feel like you stepped into a stove on a hot Northern California day. Having sampled the system during a string of 100-plus degree days in Sacramento, I can tell you that it’s somewhat effective. Getting into the car was still a hot proposition.

I’m waiting to see what customizers will do with the Prius and its ilk when these hybrids someday make their way to garages, barns and salvage yards. I’d be tempted to drop an old Ford 427 in the front end and paint the car bright green, but I’ve always had a twisted sense of humor. Customizers of the future, surprise me.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Formula One circus rolls on unabated

Sacramento, California – When I was following Formula One racing as a child – seemingly the only human in my age group doing so – I remember being mystified that the world racing tour was routinely called “a traveling circus.”

Today, circus seems entirely appropriate.

After all, what other endeavor can offer simultaneous acts that are exciting, bizarre and downright strange?

This year’s circus has been particularly entertaining.

You have a longtime middle-of-the-pack racer, England’s Jenson Button, winning six of the first seven races for a team, Brawn, that did not even exist a year ago. Ordinarily, one would have expected Button to have wrapped up the Formula One driving title weeks ago.

But no. Instead, Button has spent the last three months struggling to get onto the podium. At last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, Button had to scratch and claw his way to an eighth-place finish that paid one lousy point.

Button leads his Brawn teammate, Rubens Barrichello of Brazil, by 14 points with just two races to go; he leads Japan GP race winner Sebastian Vettel, the German driving for Red Bull, by 16 points. Button is sitting pretty to win the championship, but he’s also one wrong dive into a turn from losing it – which would be an epic loss given his incredible start.

Folks who follow Formula One closely might remember that Brawn’s use of a double diffuser was cited by rival race teams as an “unfair” advantage that sent Button on his way to begin the year. F1 powers ultimately decided that Brawn was within the rules. Naturally, rival teams copied Brawn and threw huge money at improving their own cutting-edge technology. Now, it’s like Brawn never had an advantage.

It’s a tale of two seasons: Brawn dominating in the first half, then semi-disappearing in the second. Can you imagine, say, a Penske racing team in the IndyCar Series just dropping off the map after winning almost all the races in the first half of a campaign? That’s what you have in Formula One.

And speaking of money, thrown into the middle of this Formula One season was a palace revolt over F1’s proposed cap on the funds teams could spend on their wonderfully complex racing cars. How dare you tell us how much money we can spend?

Teams threatened to quit, to leave the sport, maybe even form their own traveling circus. Formula One finally blinked and backed off, figuring maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to continue on with teams like Ferrari racing in another series.

Had enough? Wait, there’s more under the big top.

Renault just lost its sponsor and saw its team principal, Flavio Briatore, banned for life in connection with the team ordering driver Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash deliberately at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix so his teammate, Fernando Alonso, could win the race.

Want some irony? Right after Briatore was banned, Alonso announced that he was leaving Renault and had signed a three-year contract to drive for Ferrari, starting next year. Alonso will replace Kimi Raikkonen, who won an F1 world championship for Ferrari just two years ago.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Throw in the fact that Federation Internationale de l’Automobile President Max Mosley has somehow managed to hold on to his job despite a controversy over his involvement in a Nazi-style sex orgy, and you really cannot call this anything but a circus. Actually, you could call it something else, but circus works.

The thing is, I have long enjoyed the edginess and technology blast of Formula One racing. Its rich history and supremely talented drivers have long commanded the attention of millions worldwide. My problem with the current F1 world is that it is overly immersed in legal wrangling, Byzantine management and, well, over-the-top outrageousness.

Here’s hoping for an F1 future with more racing, less circus.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Old name + new look = Nice job

Sacramento, California – I’m happy to report that the latest version of the recently resurrected Ford Taurus is not merely an effort to recall happier times at Ford Motor Co.

The extensively reworked-for-2010 Taurus is a substantial car, much more substantial than the old Taurus that was a serious seller for Ford a generation ago. I’d take the 2010 Taurus over any previously produced car wearing that name.

Ford rode the 1986 Taurus to the top, when the new sedan proved hugely popular with Americans looking for a nicely-sized car at a nice price. The Taurus proceeded to become the nation’s best-selling passenger car. Then, in 1995, Ford introduced a second-generation Taurus that was decidedly more swoopy.

That turned out to be a mistake. Taurus sales plunged, and the brand eventually was dropped … in favor of the Ford Five Hundred, arguably a bigger mistake than the mid-1990s restyling of the Taurus. Thankfully, Ford chief Alan Mulally figured out that the best thing to do was drop the Five Hundred and bring back the Taurus.

And with the 2010 Taurus, the comeback is complete, and admirable.

I just spent a week in the 2010 Taurus SEL with front-wheel drive. This model is only a slight cut above the entry-level Taurus SE FWD, yet it was as solid as a rock. Talk about old-school; it looked and felt like a loaded Buick Riviera from years past. And yes, I really enjoyed the old-school Riviera.

The Taurus has a high-riding look, with tall doors and side sculpting riding up to seemingly crunched window glass. Yet the view from inside the Taurus was fine, with no visibility problems whatsoever from the cockpit.

The 3.5-liter V-6 engine with 263 horsepower handled all challenges with ease. The V-6 had more than enough juice to handle what California’s challenging highways and mountain roads could dish up. The ride was quiet and smooth, with a strong suspension and a light, but just-firm-enough feel in the steering wheel. Fuel mileage ratings of 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway were about what one expects from this V-6.

Performance fans will be pleased with the presence of shift paddles behind the steering wheel. Nothing like living out that Formula One fantasy in a Ford sedan.

The interior of my tester was juiced up with leather surfaces that were part of a $2,700 package of options that bumped up the interior environment, the audio system and some safety systems. Frankly, I would have liked the car just as much without them.

The standard package is impressive, with dual chromed exhaust tips, halogen headlamps, six-way power driver’s seat, eight cup/bottle holders and dash controls that were large enough to be seen and easily used.

The list of technologies that can be had in the Taurus is staggering. It includes adaptive cruise control, collision-warning system, programmable “smart” keys, a blind spot illumination system, a cross traffic-alert system, rain-sensing wipers, the SYNC audio/communication system and voice-activated navigation.

No, this isn’t your daddy’s Taurus. And it isn’t priced like daddy’s ride, either.

Motorists used to Taurus window stickers of old might be shocked to see the entry-level model starting at $25,170. The starting price on my tester was $27,170. A Taurus Limited with all-wheel drive tops $33,000. And if you want a rip-roaring 2010 Taurus SHO with a 365 horsepower V-6, the starting fare is $37,170.

Well, that’s progress. And frankly, those prices are in line with all that the current Taurus has stuffed into it.

By the way, that Taurus SHO is likely to end up winning some prestigious Car of the Year awards before we welcome in 2010. Believe it.

And welcome back, old friend.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mazda3 brings Zoom-Zoom ... and a lot more

Sacramento, California – There’s something about the Mazda3.

My 20-something son fell in love with the car the first time he saw it in five-door trim. Hard-line auto reviewers who typically savage any vehicle that’s not a Lexus, a ’Vette or a Mercedes routinely drool over the Mazda3.

So it was no surprise that a recent week with a 2010 Mazda3 s Grand Touring sedan produced the usual gaga reactions from folks.

Motorists leaned out of their car windows for a better look when I was parked at stoplights. Neighbors came over, whistling and raving over the car in my driveway. Total strangers walked up to me in parking lots, wanting to know more about my hot car.

Keep in mind that I was driving a Mazda3 with a plain-white paint job.

What gives?

Well, OK, the Mazda3 looked pretty good to begin with. Restyled for 2010, it looks even better.

And by that, I mean hotter.

Honest, the thing looks like a street racer’s dream. Exceedingly sexy sculpting on the front end hits you in the face, with the center grille arranged in such a way that it looks like a huge smile.

Seeing that front end closing in on my ride from behind, I can almost hear it whispering, “Get out of the way, fool.”

A winning grin. I love it. Give me another shot of Zoom-Zoom.

Side sculpting adds to the performance look, as does a sharp chop on the back end. Those 17-inch alloy wheels also give it road-race cred.

The tester was equipped with the 2.5-liter, 16-valve, in-line 4 with 167 horses. That might not sound like a lot, but the Mazda3 rips along with authority, thank you very much. And fuel mileage is very decent at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

Best of all, the Mazda3 handles like a champ, slicing and dicing city traffic and easing through freeway chaos with little strain and just a blip needed on the throttle. It climbs well, struggling only with the steepest runs in the Sierra Nevada. That’s OK. A trip to Tahoe in the Mazda3 is a blast; no blasting audio needed to keep you focused.

In case you don’t know, the car is a front-driver. You might not know that from its crisp handling, but it says so right in the owner’s manual.

If you’re into long lists of standard interior features, the Mazda3 does not disappoint. The tested model included leather-trimmed seats, heated front seats with power, Bluetooth hands-free phone/audio technology, dual-zone climate control, two 12-volt power outlets and electroluminescent gauges that look aftermarket cool.

Exterior standard goodies on the tester included rain-sensing front wipers, heated exterior mirrors and shiny dual exhausts. Throw in stability control and traction control, and you have quite a deal starting at a mere $22,300. An entry-level Mazda3 has fewer features, but it starts at only $15,295.

I’ve always been a big believer in cars that give you features and performance for a low price. You can start with the Corvette and go from there. There’s universal appeal in good looks, a fun drive and a nice price. Why aren’t more automakers doing it?

The Mazda3 shapes up as the perfect car for the young family, but maybe not for a big family. It’s a five-passenger vehicle, but I wouldn’t test three riders in the back seat, at least not if you want them to speak to you again.

The only other gripe is that when Mazda tightened up the chassis for 2010, it came out too tight. Road imperfections typically buzzed through the stiffened frame, but not enough to spoil the fun of driving this sports compact.

Monday, September 21, 2009

2010 Equinox: Good thing, small package

Sacramento, California – Almost lost in the heat over America’s dependence on foreign oil is the production of some practical-size sport-utility vehicles by America’s automakers.

The 2010 Chevrolet Equinox is a good example.

Redesigned for the new model year, the Equinox is a compact crossover that gives you not the slightest suggestions of being an oversized, gas-guzzling road hog. It comes off instead as a useful carrier of humans and cargo – and it doesn’t block out the sun.

OK, here’s where we add the disclaimer that, yes, U.S. automakers previously committed the hideous sin of producing behemoth SUVs, seemingly in a race to see which company could produce the champion fuel-waster on the roadways.

That was then. The Equinox is now.

In my week in a smart-looking, Navy blue, front-driving 2010 Equinox LTZ – the second-most-expensive of eight trim levels, starting at $28,045 – driving an SUV never seemed so politically correct. EPA fuel estimates on the sticker were a decidedly tepid 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the open road, but I found my tester doing a good 3 mpg better than that in both categories. Bravo.

The tester’s power plant was the more-macho 3-liter V-6 with 264 horsepower, which certainly drank fuel at a higher rate than the standard 2.4-liter four-banger. Investing in an entry-level Equinox (for a starting price of around $22,500) with a four-cylinder engine raises the projected fuel mileage to 22/32 mpg.

That’s nice, but here in California, I prefer to have some pop in my SUV, lest I get eaten alive on the interstates. The tested Equinox certainly met expectations, with good acceleration from a standing start and strongly rolling down freeway entrance ramps. The vehicle did some serious groaning on steep uphill climbs, and I could feel the gearbox struggling for its comfort level at those times.

But generally speaking, this Equinox will take people and a fair amount of cargo down the road with little complaint. Lots of rear-seat cargo configurations are a plus, too.

Steering was one-hand easy, and independent suspension front and rear maintained a smooth ride even on some of my pothole-ravaged driving routes.

Chevrolet describes the exterior look at “global” in nature, but it’s what I would call modern-day SUV fastback, which is to say the front wedge is nicely sculpted, and the back end slopes down with a nice aerodynamic flair. Other SUVs have the same look. Simply put, this Equinox is easy on the eyes.

Interior comforts are plentiful. Standard, leather-appointed seats on the tester were smooth and cushioning. Myriad controls in the center stack were easy to see, understand and use. The audio system was robust and rocking, courtesy of a standard Pioneer system with eight speakers.

My rearview camera system projected an image into the left side of the interior rearview mirror, a nice feature that enables you to keep your head up while you’re carefully backing up, instead of dropping your head to the center dash and defeating the goal of looking all around you.

The 360-degree visibility from the cockpit was exceptional, especially from the front seats. The view out the front was like having a primo seat at a widescreen movie presentation. My 5-2 wife raved it. I’m 6-4. So if the windshield visibility feels good in those height ranges, you know you have something good.

Safety features are likewise impressive. Air bags are plentiful, but you also get little helpers, like ultrasonic rear parking assist, as standard on the front-drive LTZ.

Systems to monitor tire pressure and oil life are helpful, but I always wonder how accurate they are. Seems like I’m always getting a false-positive on tire pressures on cold days. Bottom line: Back up the technology by eyeballing these things yourself.

And remember, Chevrolet now gives you the 100,000-mile/5-year limited powertrain warranty – a feel-good plus that I’ve long wanted from U.S. automakers.

Overall, this Equinox is a sublime vehicle, a guilt-free SUV that stacks up nicely against some top-selling foreign competitors.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Prius reviewed in September Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Toyota Prius IV appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo. The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Monday, September 14, 2009

NASCAR Chase 101: Every place counts

Sacramento, California – If there was any lesson to be learned last Saturday night in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway, it was this: Every place counts.

And not just every place in the last race. All those finishing positions in the 26-race Chase for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup count.

The lesson hits mercurial NASCAR star Kyle Busch the hardest. He fell just 8 points shy of beating out Brian Vickers for the 12th and final spot in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff, and all the prestige and money that goes with that.

Oh, what Kyle would give to have just a couple positions in races that ran from March through August. A couple of passes here and there, and Vickers’ spectacular finishing kick would have fallen just short.

Kyle acknowledged as much after Saturday night’s run in Richmond: “It’s not the last two weeks. It’s the previous 26 altogether,” he said.

So true. A few NASCAR teams seem to have figured out that consistency is the name of the game here, not banzai drives to the front of the pack. Besides Vickers, a prime example is Juan Pablo Montoya, whose team adopted a consistent approach in the races leading up to Richmond.

Montoya conceded Saturday night that running conservatively was driving him crazy, but he understood that consistently high finishes make the Chase. Winning two races and finishing 15th or worse in eight others does you no good. That’s the basic math of the current NASCAR points system.

It seems to me that marginal race teams would figure this out as they plan for 2010. They could shoot for consistent finishes in, say, the top 12 and perhaps sneak into the Chase ahead of the hotshots.

To a limited degree, that’s already happening, although Vickers and his crew frankly rate much higher than a marginal NASCAR team. They’ve made huge strides this year. They could be dangerous over the next 10 races.

Along this same line, a driver like Mark Martin might be determined to average a string of third-place finishes in the season’s final 10 races and walk off with the trophy. After so many close calls, it would be great to see Martin win the big hardware.

My heart likes Martin. My head says Jimmie Johnson.

Denny Hamlin is hot, Tony Stewart knows how to get it done, Jeff Gordon seems primed to make a serious run for Cup No. 5 and Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne are lurking as overlooked contenders. But Johnson has simply muscled past the competition for three years running.

The smart money is on Johnson and his championship-proven team. Four titles in a row would cement Jimmie’s Hall of Fame credentials. I like his chances.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Forester's plentiful charms explain its popularity

Sacramento, California – Some of my car-loving friends continually ask me why the Subaru Forester gets such high marks from car-reviewing colleagues.

“You don’t even see that many of them on the road,” they exclaim.

Actually, it’s simple: For many folks – from singles to families – the Forester shapes up as just about the perfect vehicle.

It offers utility, but it’s not super-sized. It’s peppy but not overbearing. It carries five in comfort. It’s loaded and classy inside, but the Forester’s sticker is not a shock-inducing device.

What’s not to love?

I recently tested the top-of-the-line 2010 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited. It’s the most expensive of five trim levels, yet it still rings in under $30,000. The MSRP is $28,495, and some humble extras on my tester (including Sirius Satellite Radio) put the bottom line at $29,694 – still a pretty good deal for a feature-stuffed Forester.

Please note that you can get the no-frills 2010 Forester 2.5X starting at a mere $20,295.

At first glance, the Forester looks like a humble wagon, but passenger volume is a substantial 102 cubic feet. Some reconfiguring of the passenger cabin opens up space to hold a surprising amount of large cargo.

The interior cabin is very civilized with a wide variety of high-end features, including a 10-way power driver’s seat (with power lumbar to boot), a leather-wrapped steering wheel/shifter and an all-weather package with heated front seats.

Very nice, but this Forester is likewise equipped for serious outdoor duty. For starters, it tows 2,400 pounds, and the 2.5-liter turbo 4 engine is a muscular performer (224 horsepower) in all conditions. This being a Subaru, all-wheel drive is part of the picture. With independent suspension front and rear, the driving package is excellent. Smooth and strong, but rugged when needed.

A lengthy list of safety features is another plus.

Gas mileage on the turbo engine is a somewhat tepid 19 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway – not great, but not bad either.

About the only thing bad you can say about the Forester is that it’s not a big Chevy Tahoe. But then that’s the point, isn’t it?

You can take the Forester anywhere – down the street, 500 miles up the interstate or deep into the woods. Chances are, you’ll like it anywhere you take it.

Is that any reason to be popular? Well, yes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Green Honda Insight has little black dress appeal

Sacramento, California – There’s something about a sporty-looking car wearing a window sticker showing 40 miles per gallon in the city and 43 mpg on the highway.

Call it the equivalent of the little black dress. Very alluring.

My recent week with the all-new 2010 Honda Insight – Honda’s Prius-fighter – was thoroughly enjoyable, because it had those decidedly aerodynamic lines and sipped gasoline at a most-conservative rate. Sure, the 2010 Toyota Prius has better EPA fuel economy ratings (51/48 mpg), but the Insight has charms beyond gas mileage.

For starters, it handled surprisingly well on freeways, zipping in and out of high-speed traffic with remarkable zest. Please note that this was while the car was not in optional “econ” mode, which reduces zip but promotes fuel mileage. “Econ” mode works best when you’ve escaped the beasts on the freeway.

A continuously variable transmission performed well, and steering was nicely responsive. The suspension provided a smooth ride and negated most road imperfections.

My tester was the Insight EX with the navigation system, the most expensive of three trim levels of the five-passenger sedan. Even so, a starting price of $23,100 was very easy on the eyes. And that included a load of standard goodies, such as heated exterior mirrors, programmable auto door locks, a technology-laden sound system and air bags all around. Please note: An Insight LX begins at a mere $19,800.

The Insight’s power plant combines a 1.3-liter 4-cylinder i-VTEC gasoline engine and a 10-kilowatt electric motor. While everything went well most of the time, the transition from engine to electric power was not always seamless. A couple of times, the respective systems seemed to argue over which was in charge. But this also could have been a byproduct of some indecision from my right foot, which sometimes wavered between hard force and tentative pressure.

The Insight has two forms of eco-reward that I found delightful. For one, the background on the digital speed readout above the steering wheel alternates between blue and green to let you know how efficiently you’re driving the car. Green is good. Blue means you’re using more gas than perhaps you need. Then, upon turning off the engine, you get a digital display of how “green” you were on your just-completed drive. You can “earn” a digital image of up to five leaves if you implemented the most fuel-efficient driving style during your trip.

This might sound like food-pellet reward to some, but I must confess that I loved it.

I have a small gripe with the lip across the glass of the rear hatch. It cuts the rear view out the car in half, horizontally. You could lose a fast-approaching car in there, but I found that my eyes quickly adjusted to it in the rearview mirror, and you can’t argue about the need for structural integrity at the back of the car.

The interior dash was nicely laid out, with easy-to-use controls. Everything was readily visible, with no clutter. Interior room was good, but three will be cramped in the Insight’s rear quarters.

So, there you have it: a car that combines green, go and good looks – enough to give the little black dress some competition.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Museum event is all about the cars, as art

Sacramento, California -- One of the pleasures of my life is my association with the California Automobile Museum (CAM) here in Sacramento.

Simply put, CAM is all about the cars. On Sept. 10, the museum kicks off a fundraiser that will not only benefit the terrific hardware on display there, but also boost CAM's mission of educating and entertaining while promoting and preserving the automobile and its influence on our lives.

The "CAM Artomotive" group exhibit and silent auction is set for Sept. 10-Oct. 17, featuring fine art with an automotive theme. CAM's Sept. 10 opening reception at 2200 Front Street will run from 6 to 9 p.m. and highlight the art collection of Bill and Jo Janowski, presented in memory of Jo.

A $5 donation is requested at the reception. Local and national artists also stand to benefit from the exhibit.

For more information, call the museum at (916) 442-6802 or visit

NASCAR needs to sustain late-race excitement

Sacramento, California -- Is anyone else growing tired of the last 20 laps of a NASCAR race taking two hours to run?

This is not a cavalier observation of a NASCAR-hater. By a series of happy coincidences, I was attending and watching NASCAR Cup events 40 years ago, when the series was running many laps behind the Indy Cars in the race for the public’s attention. I was a rabid Indy Car fan, but back then, I also wondered why more people weren’t interested in the NASCAR races, which were routinely wheel-to-wheel close and hugely exciting.

Today, I’m asking how things went so far the other way, with NASCAR basking in enormous popularity and the IndyCar series seemingly fighting for every fan.

But my gripe with NASCAR of late is the length of time it takes to run the races in its top-tier divisions. In particular, the late stages of races seem to take forever. Last Sunday’s NASCAR Nationwide event at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal now stands as the poster child of my concerns. It took a whopping 3 hours and 49 minutes, a Nationwide series record, to run 76 laps on the 14-turn, 2.7-mile road course.

That’s longer than an NFL game. It’s longer than a World Series game with multiple pitcher changes. It’s longer than the wait at airport security on Thanksgiving eve.

Yes, I know there was a rain delay, when NASCAR admirably opted to let the lads race on rain tires.

But much of the time drag can be attributed to knucklehead driving. I saw drivers rocketing into turns like teenage rookies, slamming into competitors who were just doing their job. I saw attempts to pass on wet grass, which would send me directly to jail if I attempted it in view of a highway patrolman.

And it wasn’t just Montreal. Repeatedly, NASCAR drivers are making suicide moves in the closing laps of races. Commentators attempt to explain it away, chuckling as they say it’s “every driver for himself to gain positions in the late-going.” Really?

Is it worth it to make a banzai move for 13th place on the last lap at Talladega, risking a crash that could turn millions of dollars of equipment into junk? Or worse, perhaps seriously hurt other drivers? If I was a car owner, I’d be preaching sensible driving instead of paying six-figure bills for a driver in pursuit of a 12th-place finish on the last lap.

For fans at the track and TV viewers, the problem is these incessant late-race cautions just kill the excitement of watching. Instead of sustained drama and action, we get two laps, a wreck and a caution … two laps, a wreck and a caution … two laps, a wreck and a caution. You finally get to the point where you just want the race to end. It’s gotten so bad that most veteran fans fully expect the green-white-checkers overtime period at the end of a NASCAR race.

The solution: I think NASCAR needs to crack down on crazy moves near the end of a race. It’s one thing to be going for the lead, or victory, at the finish. But late-race mayhem in mid-pack on back needs some discipline. Penalize idiot moves. And if there are repeat offenders, sit them down for a race or more.

That might make the late-race action more exciting. And that would certainly keep my attention.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Value is this Kia's Forte

Sacramento, California -- One of the bummers of more than a year of depressed motor vehicle sales is the fact that some very good new cars were buried under an avalanche of negative headlines.

The all-new 2010 Kia Forte compact sedan is one such example.

I thoroughly enjoyed a recent week in the Kia Forte SX, the most expensive of three trim levels. Yet even though the tester was dressed up with extras that included leather seating surfaces, heated front seats and a power sunroof, the bottom line on the sticker came in at a very affordable $20,490.

I loved its sleek looks. Those integrated, swept-back headlights added a sporty feel, magnified even more by 17-inch alloy wheels.

The 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine (173 horsepower) performed admirably for a four-banger, and a sport-tuned suspension was an able bump-eater and did not present anything like a stiff ride. Only the steepest uphill climbs made the power plant groan, and it felt good to be getting spot-on EPA-estimated fuel economy readings of 23 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the open road.

Steering was super-responsive. The Forte ate up an orange-coned slalom course I set up in an abandoned store lot.

This discount driver was far from stripped. The safety, interior and exterior features lists on the tested Forte were lengthy. They included goodies you normally don’t get in this price range, including electronic brake distribution, traction control, electronic stability control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a three-month complimentary subscription with the Sirius Satellite Radio system.

Interior space is good, but three beefy passengers in the back might struggle. Throw in Kia’s generous warranties, and this Forte makes quite the value package.

The new, funky-looking Kia Soul urban vehicle might be getting the lion’s share of publicity, but the Forte has what many claim they are looking for – a liberally-appointed, practical-sized family sedan at a bargain price.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The party's what?

Sacramento, California -- Now that the Cash for Clunkers party is over, people throughout the auto industry are asking: Was it worth it?

Overall, I'd have to say "yes."

After all, you can't sneeze at nearly 700,000 new-car sales generated within less than a month by the federal program that gave consumers rebates of $3,500 to $4,500 for showing up to turn in their old cars.

Now that consumer traffic at U.S. dealer lots has dropped off the table in the days after Cash for Clunkers wrapped up, there's all sorts of analysis that Cash for Clunkers really wasn't needed, that Americans already were poised to purchase new cars. Pent-up demand, analysts said, was at a fever pitch before Cash for Clunkers.

Well, maybe.

To say that consumers would probably have started buying new cars without Cash for Clunkers doesn't really dovetail with the evidence. Simply put, consumers nationwide have been sitting on the sidelines for more than a year -- a natural byproduct of watching their relatively humble investments crushed in the stock market dive. And jobless people don't tend to go out and buy a new car with their jobless benefits.

Frankly, I've never put much stock in "pent-up demand," a frequently used statistical analysis term that has a lot of gray area. Just because I look hungry does not mean I'm ready to go out and drop $50 on a steak dinner. I'm more likely to save money and grab a bite at home .... at least until my household budget looks a little better.

Yes, it's true that many car dealers are grumbling about slow reimbursement on their Cash for Clunkers deals from the government. And that is a problem. But it's hardly a surprise in a national red-tape nightmare set off by a rush to dealer lots nationwide. The government probably would have been smarter to hand over a percentage of funds to automakers and let them administer the rebate proceeds to dealers. The automakers were already geared up to do this.

The post-Cash for Clunkers period is likely to produce decreased consumer demand for new cars, but it's hard to put all the blame for that on the federal program. Cash for Clunkers simply prompted consumers to get off the couch and buy a new car, because the price was suddenly in range (especially when additional incentives were piled on top of the rebates). The buyer blitz was needed for an industry that was lumbering along the bottom of the ocean looking for a boost.

Real progress is going to take more time. Job losses, particularly in car-crazy California, have cut into car sales. Until the economy improves, more people are employed and fewer workers see their buying power cut down with pay cuts and furloughs, don't expect annual new-car sales to come anywhere near the 17 million-units-a-year pace that was business as usual just a few years back.

I would expect used-car sales to bump up now, which they already were doing before Cash for Clunkers showed up.

Looking back, consider Cash for Clunkers a good party that a recession-weary public and car industry needed. Now, it's time to get back to work.

It's been ever-thus....MG