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.