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.