Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Helio looks ready for fourth Indy 500 win

Sacramento, California – Is it me or did it seem like 90 percent of the field for this year’s Indianapolis 500 qualified at 224 miles per hour?

There’s certainly a logjam at that number, something that experts point to as making this 94th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing a wide-open affair.

I’m not sure I see it that way.

When the three Penske cars – pole-sitter Helio Castroneves, No. 2 starter Will Power and No. 4 starter Ryan Briscoe – were running practice laps in fighter jet-style formation last weekend, I had a vision of it being a preview of the final stages of this Sunday’s race. It very well could go that way.

Three Penske cars, expertly prepared, running up front, for the most successful car owner in Indy car history. Pretty hard to bet against that combination.

The Target-Chip Ganassi duo of 2007 Indy winner Dario Franchitti and 2008 winner Scott Dixon looks formidable enough. They seemed down on oomph compared with the Penske trio, but who knows whether that was gamesmanship leading up to the race?

Maybe Franchitti and Dixon will do better on race day. They started out strong in last year’s race and then faded, clearing the way for Castroneves to breeze to his third 500 win.

My gut tells me that Castroneves is so dialed in that he will win his record-tying fourth Indy 500 this weekend. He loves the track, he knows it by heart, he has the experience and he appears to have the best car. He’s arguably the biggest favorite since Rick Mears started on the pole in 1982, with a qualifying speed far and away better than his rivals.

Those of you who remember 1982, however, might recall that Mears lost by an eye-blink to Gordon Johncock. It’s racing. Anything can happen.

If it’s not Castroneves (pictured), don’t be surprised if Power takes it. He’s a very talented driver who only recently has gained well-deserved respect. Briscoe likely is still hurting from throwing away last year’s IndyCar Series title. He’s good on the fast ovals. He needs to stay mistake-free, however, and he’s shown a tendency to make the big mistake at the worst possible time.

Dark horse? Dan Wheldon, the 2005 winner. He starts in the middle of the pack, and he has a history of charging from that spot to the front on race day. He’s very good at Indy, and he regards the track as holy ground.

Danica Patrick and the other three women in the race have tough starting positions. They have to have a lot go right during the race, but that’s not a longshot. A lot can happen in 500 miles.

All things being equal, though, I’m guessing Castroneves will be drinking the victor’s bottle of milk on Sunday.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Missing the old Indy 500, but race still thrills

Sacramento, California – I’ll head for the Brickyard one more time on May 27, no small thing in my family.

Fresh from World War II and the great naval engagements in the Pacific, my father first attended the Indianapolis 500 in 1946. He passed on his love of the great race to my older brother and myself. For years, we made the 100-mile-or-so journey over to Indianapolis from our home in Dayton, Ohio.

Time and distance have not changed things. On May 30, my brother will sit on that same main stretch where he sat for his first 500 precisely 50 years ago. My first Indy 500 came the next year, 1961. My son will be taking in his 20th race.

And at the risk of sounding ancient, I miss the old days.

I remember when a quarter-million people used to show up for pole day at Indy. You had to fight to get a seat anywhere on the main stretch.

The lure back then was pushing the envelope of speed. The run-up to pole day in 1962 was: My lord, Parnelli Jones could actually break the 150 mph barrier in qualifications!
He did just that.

By 1968, drivers blasted through 170 mph. In 1973, massive wings on the cars pushed qualifying speeds close to 200. It all seemed impossible, and we showed up in speed-obsessed droves to watch it.

Today, of course, the envelope pushing that used to thrill and terrify us has disappeared. In 1996, the last year of turbocharged engines at Indy, there were some who predicted that driver Arie Luyendyk’s record qualifying lap of 237-plus mph and his four-lap average of 236 and a fraction would stand for 50 years.

Alas, that’s probably true. And for me, there’s sadness in that.

Indy was always about speed and laying it out there beyond what seemed possible. When that went away, something was lost. And it went away during a time when NASCAR was making huge advances in TV viewers and track attendance. Now, the only pushing people want to see appears to be two bellyaching NASCAR drivers shoving each other after the race … or on the caution laps, as recently demonstrated in the Nationwide series.

I’m also disappointed that the powers that be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) opted to go back to the one qualifying weekend format. I realize that they’re tweaking things to create drama, and it wasn’t much fun having only two drivers qualify back and forth on the once-exciting last day of qualifying – the so-called “bubble day.”

But I miss the feeling of Indy being a month-long racing festival. The IZOD IndyCar Series fraternity is gathered in Indianapolis anyway. Why not keep two weekends of qualifying? Do you have somewhere better to go? And of course, if qualifying is rained out this weekend (a definite possibility, according to my weather map), then you’ll have cars qualifying on weekdays in front of about 250,000 empty seats.

Too bad.

Alas, Indy is still Indy. Incredible facility and steeped in history. But I miss the old days of new speed records and death-defying bravery. No question, racing at Indy today is much safer than it used to be. Some point to keeping the lid on speeds as a primary reason for that.

I’m not sure that’s true. Technology has made racing safer. As for “too fast,” drivers were saying speeds were too fast when 100 mph laps were being turned at IMS in 1920.

Enough longing for the old days. They’ve been running this race for nearly 100 years now. Might as well enjoy it as it is.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Scion xB: Toaster no more, it's a quality ride

Sacramento, California – Remember the newly introduced 2004 Scion xB?

Sure you do. But you might remember it better by its unofficial title: The rolling toaster.

Yes, that’s exactly what it looked like. With silver paint, it looked ready to turn four raft-size slices of bread into crusty brown goodness in a mere minute.

The funky, yet incredibly functional xB is still around, but those hard toaster edges have been softened into more-rounded corners. The look is still boxy, but the 2010 xB is more long, low wagon than saucy beach vehicle taken to land.

It remains one of my favorites. If I had to buy a car tomorrow, I’d probably get an xB.

This came as a shock to my family, which wondered why, after the hundreds of cars I’ve tested over the years, I’d want a $15,000-ish vehicle that looked like the love child of a crossover SUV and a station wagon.

The answer is simple: Affordable, functional, versatile and uncomplicated.

What more can you ask of a vehicle beyond reliable motoring, plentiful space to carry passengers and cargo and enough safety, comfort and convenience features to make one smile? … And don’t forget a sticker that won’t make your heart skip a couple beats.

By the way, the guy who delivered my tester xB confessed to me that the xB was a guilty pleasure … Don’t worry pal, I won’t tell your family.

The tested 2010 Scion xB 5-door with an automatic transmission had a bottom line of $23,538, with a pretty ridiculous package of pricey extras. Frankly, I would have been totally content with all that came with the standard starting price of $16,700.

The starting fare gets you electronic brake-force distribution, vehicle stability control, traction control, air bags all around, locking retractors, tire air pressure-monitoring system, a first-aid kit, halogen headlamps, turn signal indicators in the exterior mirrors, a kickin’ Pioneer sound system, all the iPod/USB connectivity hookups and power door/locks/windows.

Impressed? You should be.

On the roll, the xB’s 16-valve, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine does its share of heavy lifting with 158 horsepower. Yes, it will scream at the top of a steep hill, but what do you want with 158 ponies? Gas mileage is 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.

A sport-tuned MacPherson strut suspension on the front and torsion beam in the rear team for a surprisingly smooth, sedan-like ride. Nice work there.

Five passengers have room enough, but the vehicle is an absolutely roomy dream for a family of four. Long trips can be done in comfort. Some quick work with the 60/40 split, fold-flat rear seats turn the xB into a package hauler capable of handling what most of us carry from time to time.

What else? Oh, you might be able to steal a 2010 model from your Scion dealer because the redesigned-for-2011 xB recently rolled into dealerships.

The 2011 xB gets fresh styling inside and out, and pricing has been set at $16,000 with a manual gearbox and $16,950 for those who dislike a clutch.

How do you like your toast? Same way I feel about the xB: Well done.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Taurus SHO reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Ford Taurus SHO 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.

Mercedes S400 Hybrid is a classy thrill ride

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

Sacramento, California -- The 2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid sedan is a rolling fireworks display – a techno-loaded, silky-smooth, mind-blowing thrill of a ride capable of transporting five.

I hate to get so excited over a luxury sedan, but this S400 really goes beyond that, like an Indy Car is beyond that jalopy you used to drive on the backroads of your youth.

Naturally, all this comes with a price. The S400 Hybrid’s starting fare is $87,950, but my tester was dressed up with an outrageous number of extras to push the bottom line into the upper atmosphere -- $111,030. Yeah, I was nervous parking this car in my neighborhood. Even honest folk might be tempted to run off with a vehicle where you expect to see a licensed chauffeur at the wheel.

The exterior is not terribly fancy. It has the contemporary Mercedes-Benz sedan look. Wide stance. Imposing grille. Meaty looking fenders and swept-back headlights.

Inside, it’s another thing altogether. Welcome to the mini five-star hotel room of your dreams, dripping with rich leather and wood trim. You have a cell phone hookup at your right hand. All onboard audio/video options known to mankind are at your command. Just choosing your seat preference takes some time: angles, heat, coolness, lumbar firmness and positions are all controlled electronically.

Impressive as all that was, the S400 Hybrid on the roll impressed me like nothing else. You’ve heard of floating on air? Believe it, that’s what this felt like. Bank-vault quiet and nary a wiggle at 70 miles per hour. Outside noise? Forget about it. A shotgun blast fired from the rooftop would sound like a dropped pillow from the cockpit seat.

Keep in mind that this “mild hybrid” produces a mere 295 horsepower with the 3.5-liter V-6 and an electric motor working in concert. Frankly, the car feels much more powerful than that. It toyed with interstate traffic uphill and down. Sharp turns taken at high speed produced zero sway. It zipped through a tight slalom run with ease.

Top-tier performance, comfort/convenience and safety/security features are too numerous to list here. I never thought I’d say this, but OK, there’s enough stuffed into this S400 Hybrid to justify a six-figure sticker.

And that’s one of the things I don’t like about the car: It’s totally out of my income bracket.

My other major gripe: The S400 Hybrid tester exerted too much control in my time with it. Say what? Let me explain.

Among the myriad safety features is something called Lane Keeping Assist. Without getting too technical, if you stray even a tiny bit outside your lane, this feature gives you three quick vibrations through the steering wheel. The first time this happened, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I thought the gearbox was trying to kill itself.

Happily, you can turn this off. And I did, because the vibrations seemed to trigger during somewhat normal driving patterns and even during merges onto freeways.

Similarly, the tester had side sensors that beeped warnings if I was about to make a lane change into another car in the blind spots. Problem is, the beeps sometimes went off needlessly, like when I was signaling an upcoming lane change approaching a car going 30 mph slower than myself on the freeway.

There’s no doubt in my mind that these features will save the lives of some drivers. For me, it’s just too much control.

Two last pieces of advice: Customizers digging in on the S400 Hybrid might want to think long and hard about messing with the complex electronics. Secondly, lucky buyers might want to curl up with the 540-page owner’s manual before hitting the road. A little reading will reduce your confusion later.