Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jaguar XFR is not a classic, but still a thrill

Sacramento, California – Some would argue that Jaguar lost its image, and its way, somewhere over the past 40 years.

But after a week in the $80,000 2010 Jaguar XFR luxury sport sedan, it’s hard to long for the good old days.

Sure, the XFR does not have a long hood on which to land a helicopter or that instant recognition from fellow motorists. But what it does have is classic Jaguar: serious pop and luxurious amenities. In fact, in my view, the car is a relative steal at 80-grand.

It looks nice, too.

An imposing front end is composed of a sporty chrome grille and sports car sculpting. Even a slight breeze seems to fly over the aerodynamic bodywork, also featuring sporty sculpting on the sides. Twenty-inch wheels? Oh yeah, sweet!

On the fly, the supercharged 510-horsepower V8 is a blast. You make the zero-to-60-mph trip in just 4.7 seconds, but the power is dished up without neck-snapping brute force. Happily, the engine makes a satisfying growl at full song, about the only major sound that penetrates a tight interior cabin.

Steering on the XFR is surprisingly light. I one-handed a fairly severe slalom course. High-speed corners are felt in the seat of the pants, but the XFR had little body sway on these maneuvers. Uphill climbs are effortless. Braking power is formidable.

Fuel mileage is, well, bad. You get 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. Did I mention that we’re talking about 510 horses here?

My ride was clutchless, but you can amuse yourself via the steering wheel-mounted shifter paddles. Car-control devices are standard fare, but they did not interfere with my driving control, something you can’t say of many luxury cars being over-engineered these days.

Safety and security features are state-of-the-art, including an engine immobilizer.

The navigation screen took some time to learn, but other controls were simple and direct. Interior cabin touches were soft and comfortable, just what you expect from a Jag luxo liner.

And that’s pretty much the point: The XFR delivers in true Jaguar style. This Jag might not be what purists once sighed at on roadways worldwide, but it’s a contemporary thrill ride that does Jaguar’s current reputation a world of good.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Color aside, Compass heads in right direction

Sacramento, California – Jeep is a mystery to many.

It used to be simple: Jeep made the most lovable and basic of off-road vehicles, a rugged transporter with deep roots in America’s World War II history. That vehicle lives on in the Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle that Motor Trend magazine calls “a true American Classic.” In its review of 2010 motor vehicles, Motor Trend gave the current Wrangler its max five-star rating.

And the 2010 Jeep Compass? Motor Trend gave it one star, and then offered this diamond-hard assessment: “Compass that sent Jeep in the wrong direction.”

I went into my week in the 2010 Jeep Compass Limited 4X4 – the most expensive of four trim levels, starting at $25,135 – with an open mind, but we got off to a bad start nevertheless. My tester was wearing what Jeep called “Optic Green Metallic Clear Coat” paint. I would have called it chartreuse.

Whatever it was, it should not be a paint choice on a factory-made Jeep. If this color was on a garment, Lady Gaga would not wear it. Ditto Liberace, were he still among the living.

Despite all this, and numerous explanations to my neighbors that this was not a car I bought, the Compass grew on me over time. I think value had something to do with it. Remember that you can get the Compass Sport 4X2 for a starting price of less than $19,000.

My Compass had a generous list of standard equipment inside and out. The interior perks included a six-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats with lumbar adjustments, leather-wrapped steering wheel and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. Leather-trimmed bucket seats were comfortable. Controls were easy to use; gauges were easy to see at a quick glance.

The Compass drove smoothly enough, not letting in too much noise from the surrounding cars. The 2.4-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder power plant was not a street racer, but the 172-horsepower engine handled most driving situations easily. The active four-wheel-drive system whipped through a nearby off-road course with few grunts and groans.

Fuel mileage came in at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. So-so, to be sure.

Carrying four passengers prompted praise. They all seemed comfortable enough, with room to spare. Grocery-hauling neighbors liked the cargo-carrying capacity of my Compass.

All in all, not a bad ride.

I think Jeep is paying a too-steep price for daring to offer more than the Wrangler. That’s kind of unfair, considering that Jeep was once criticized for not having enough variety in its lineup. And Jeep was hardly the sole offender in the “more is better” approach that was popular among automakers before the recession.

Remember Saturn taking heat for its thin lineup? Lot of good that did. Remember Mercedes-Benz offering comparatively cheap entry-level cars? Remember Porsche doing the same? Porsche now offers a four-door model, the Panamera, much to the dismay of Porsche purists.

For my money, automakers can offer what they want. It’s their business, after all. I tend to judge the vehicles one at a time.

As for the Compass, it’s pretty much as advertised – a basic compact SUV that won’t take you to the poorhouse.

Still, hold the chartreuse.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rubbin' isn't racin' if someone gets killed

What do you suppose would happen to me if I became enraged when someone cut me off in highway traffic, I followed the offending driver and then pushed him off the road at, say, 70 miles per hour?

I'd be in jail, facing multiple felonies, of course.

But if I was wearing a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver's uniform and going, say, 190 miles per hour, I'd be in the next race, with a comparatively light three-race probation hanging over my head.

Problematic? You bet.

I’ve long maintained that NASCAR turns a blind eye to drivers in its top series beating and banging on each other.

The point was driven home yet again in Atlanta last Sunday when Carl Edwards, who was a light year behind in the Sprint Cup race, rolled back out onto the track and bumped fellow competitor Brad Keselowski’s car, turning it into an out-of-control 175 mph missile.

The penalty for Edwards: a three-race probation.

A National Basketball Association player gets a suspension for simply leaving the bench during a fight on the floor. But Edwards will get to keep playing. I'm not singling out Edwards. He's just one in the long gray line of NASCAR drivers who have deliberately crashed out another driver while traveling at high speed.

Much as it denies it, NASCAR takes the same approach to driver retaliations as the National Hockey League does to fighting. It’s tolerated, seemingly because it has always been a part of the sport. And let’s face it, many fans find it entertaining.

With NHL fighting, the consequeces are typically a black eye, a bloodied nose or a fat lip. When 3,500-pound NASCAR race cars are flying through the air at 175 mph, the consequences could be far worse.

What happens if a driver gets killed? Or a fan in the stands? That's the kind of situation that could send a sport into a tailspin for years.

If NASCAR really wanted to stop this, it could.

It could say that any case of obvious driver retaliation will be met with a five-race suspension penalty. That means five races of an entire race team sitting on the sidelines in the ultra-competitive series, and five races with your sponsor’s name not out there, the same sponsor who put up millions to have his/her name out there.

Second violation, 10 races. Third violation, a year.

Those moves would stop the dangerous driving overnight. And rightly so. It seems like drivers in 200 mph missiles should face something more severe than a brief probation when they lose their tempers.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sebring convertible reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Chrysler Sebring Convertible Limited 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 http://www.cruisinnews.com/, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Jaguar's XKR droptop is a pricey performer

This review originally published in the February 2010 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California.--mg

Sacramento, California – A lot of questions go through your mind when someone hands over a $102,000, 510-horsepower car for you to test.

Questions like: Can I really be trusted with this thing?

Well, I did not crash my 2010 Jaguar XKR convertible after a week behind the wheel, so at least I have that going for me.

Talk about Fantasy Island, my time with the XKR was a dream-come-true for someone who appreciates horsepower and fine engineering. And I’m serious about that last part.

Sure, Jaguar has taken some lumps in the past for glitches, goofs and breakdowns in its cars, but this XKR is not shaping up that way. For the record, other car-reviewing colleagues agree with me on this score.

This XKR not only performed at a stunning level, but it felt rock-solid. Fit and finish were excellent. No rattles or whistles to be heard. On sharp corners taken at not exactly safe speeds, this XKR held the line like a purpose-built road racing car.

Engineering acid test: Even the sound system was easy to figure out.

Yeah, Jaguar seems to have its head together on this XKR. And for the price, that’s only fitting.

How is it on the eyes? The XKR droptop looks like a Corvette-breaker. There are vertical inlets at the front sides and atop the hood, sweet aerodynamic rooflines and a tail section that actually allows for some baggage (think small!) in the boot.

The soul of the Jag is the 5-liter, direct-injection, supercharged V-8 with 510 horses. The car makes the zero-to-60 mph run in a mere 4.6 seconds. Alas, the beast is electronically limited to 155 mph – a threshold I did not personally check out. But given the fact that you actually could take the XKR up to 155 with comparatively little effort probably makes the case for the electronic ankle bracelet.

Where does that kind of speed come from? Well, besides the engine, there’s the lightweight aluminum bodywork to speed things up. And while the supercharger provides a satisfying, snap-your-neck blast, it’s not a staggered jolt and does not fill up the cockpit with shrieking levels of noise. Like I said, Jaguar has engineered this baby.

The electronically controlled six-speed transmission also helps out, managing all that power with seamless beauty.

While the suspension is stiff, it’s not nearly as stiff as that found in the 2010 Nissan 370Z convertible I recently tested. Likewise, the XKR convertible’s cabin is much quieter than the Z droptop. Credit a triple-lined fabric top on the Jag.

For all its pricey glory, the Jaguar XKR convertible is actually pretty simple and civilized inside. The center stack of controls includes an easy-to-read digital readout for your radio stations, CD tracks and navigation map. Setting all this up is a snap. You don’t need an advanced degree in electronics to make it all work within minutes.

There are some obvious things that tip you off that this is a $100,000 two-seater. The 19-inch Tamana alloy wheels, for example. And there are the heated/cooled seats, with 10-way power adjustments. Lots of silver and rich wood surfaces are present. I mean even the storage compartments in the doors are carpeted on the bottom.

Other things aren’t so obvious, like the rollover-protection system that deploys in an eye-blink and just might save your life if you test that 155 mph maximum speed limiter. Oh, and there’s an engine immobilizer, perfect for turning a car bandit’s day bad.

If you long to customize the 2010 XKR, think long and hard about making that first cut. This Jag already looks pretty terrific, with an engine that dishes up about as much juice as any of us will ever need. I think you have to guard against messing up an already-good thing, like putting mudflaps on a ‘Cuda. Don’t go there.

Obviously, the XKR is beyond the reach of those of us making workingman’s money. I can’t imagine spending 100-grand on a two-seater, but then it’s all relative. If you have a zillion bucks, putting down 102 K on a Jag is not going to ruin your fortune-fueled bliss.

Everything considered, I’d say the XKR is worthy of its bottom line. It’s stuffed with power, sexiness, technology and fun. I think that adds up to $102,000.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Team Jimmie/Chad: NASCAR's N.Y. Yankees?

Sacramento, California – Can you hear that sound emanating from NASCAR’s racetracks?

No, it’s not the sound of roaring engines.

It’s the sound of growing resentment and concern that driver Jimmie Johnson and his Lowe’s Chevy team headed by crew chief Chad Knaus are dominating way too much. They’re becoming the New York Yankees of NASCAR, a team so dominant that even longtime, loyal fans are starting to root against them.

Johnson won a fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup title last year and is well on his way in his Drive For Five.

After his near-customary poor finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, Johnson won the next two events in Fontana, California, and Las Vegas. In Fontana, race luck helped Johnson take the checkered flag first. In Vegas, a great late-race pit stop call for four tires helped Johnson speed past teammate Jeff Gordon, who had dominated the event until the late-going.

The signs of a growing “anybody but Jimmie” movement were evident from the competition after the checkers waved in Las Vegas.

“We can run with them, and they know it,” said driver Kevin Harvick, who leads the series points standings right now. (Johnson has jumped up to fifth after his dismal Daytona outing.)

Well, maybe.

Harvick has not demonstrated the ability to maintain top-points-paying positions throughout NASCAR’s ridiculously long season. Anything can happen of course, but with Johnson’s proven ability to win or finish high over 10 months year after year, the smart betting money is on Johnson.

Harvick apparently is pondering a full-season run at NASCAR’s Nationwide Series title, and I’m not sure that’s a good plan if you truly want to concentrate on catching Johnson in NASCAR’s varsity level. I’d be studying up on the NASCAR Chase tracks and getting all the test time I could to put a dent in Johnson’s plans.

Even then, I’m not sure it’s going to work. Johnson and Knaus are in a once-in-a-lifetime groove. They know how to race every track, and to Johnson’s credit, he knows when to push it and not push it. Rarely is Johnson caught out in a senseless early-race duel. If he can pick up points leading throughout a race in a superior car, fine. If not, no problem.

How many times have you seen Johnson post a top-five finish in a car that ran most of the race in 10th place or worse? Too many for me to remember.

Johnson’s teammate, Gordon, must be chuckling. He remembers when he was winning so often that he led the league in crowd boos when he was introduced before a race. After last week, when Gordon saw a much-deserved win snatched away, you have to wonder if fans will start rooting for Gordon to beat Jimmie.

It’s happened before. Darrell Waltrip went from NASCAR fans’ public enemy No. 1 early in his driving career to “good ol’ D.W.” late in his run. Those good feelings linger today.

For his part, Johnson is his usual unflappable self.

“We don’t feel invincible,” he said simply after his Las Vegas win.

Neither do the Yankees, but it sure helps when you have an all-star lineup laced with multimillion-dollar wage earners.

Break up Team Jimmie/Chad?

I don’t think so. Let’s see how far they can make this run into history.

Boo them if you wish. But respect what they’re doing.