Thursday, August 26, 2010

Master blaster: Jag coupe lights up the road

Sacramento, California – Sliding down into the cockpit of the low-slung 2011 Jaguar XKR Coupe was no picnic for my 6-foot-4 frame.

But once I was in, I knew I had arrived in the seat of power.

That would be 510 blissful, growling horses put out by 5-liter supercharged V-8. Starting the Jag woke up the neighbors four doors down, but I cooled it on the way out of our zoned-for-residential area. Good thing.

Jaguar advertises a time of 4.6 seconds to make the zero-to-60 miles per hour trip.

And that might be a conservative boast based on what I was experiencing behind the wheel. Mashing the accelerator brought instant G-force body load and the kind of oomph one associates with a purpose-built racer.

Auto reviewers like to say a sporty car has pop, zip or gusto. Those words don’t really cut with this Jag.

The XKR Coupe has rip, and lots of it.

Not only is performance extreme, the XKR is tuned to take steep hill climbs like a bighorn sheep, and it sticks on hard corners like a monorail from hell.

A turn-on? Oh my, yes!

And it looks the part: a classic low-riding bullet with hood sculpting that looks sporty and touts the supercharger under the skin. Interior comfort was surprisingly nice. The suspension was sporty stiff but not to the point where every road imperfection was sent up my spine. That’s not easy to engineer, so kudos to the Jag boys for that one.

Interior luxury was entirely appropriate for a car in the $100,000 ballpark, and the controls were easy to reach and use. The spin knob gear shifter is a little strange, but you get used to it.

Front seats were comfortable, and the back seats were, well, there. Frankly, I did not care even a little bit about the prospective comfort of back seat passengers, because I was having too good a time driving the car.

Want comfort? Get your own ride.

Some XKR critics are knocking Jaguar for not changing the vehicle’s look, and this is a mystery to me. These are the same folks who whine when Chevy tweaks the Corvette even a little bit every few years. Go figure.

This XKR is all Jag. Leave it alone.

My recent streak of odd experiences with Sirius Satellite Radio continued in the XKR Coupe and amounted to the only negative experience in the car. Something happened that I’ve never experienced behind the wheel: The radio subscription ran out WHILE A TUNE WAS PLAYING ON THE RADIO!

That’s it pal. You want more? Pay up.

Damndest thing I’ve ever seen.

Luckily, the XKR’s race-worthy performance was providing me with all the entertainment I needed.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Will Power lives up to name on, off track

Sonoma, California – They don’t call him Will Power for nothing.

The affable Aussie who has dominated the road courses of the IZOD IndyCar Racing Series this year put on another dominating performance here Sunday, holding off Scott Dixon to win the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.

While the final margin was close, Power was seemingly in control all day, with only random caution periods allowing Dixon to close up and make it interesting. Rarely, however, did Power look seriously threatened. He emerged from his car looking as fresh as a daisy.

Last year, he was watching this race from a remote location, his broken back braced following a horrific, huge-impact crash at Infineon Raceway. Power said that in the moments after that crash, he felt so much pain that he thought his career was over … and maybe that was a good thing given the amount of suffering he was experiencing from fractures in his backbone.

Here’s where the willpower part kicks in. When good race drivers are seriously hurt and return to the cockpit months later, there’s this general assumption that they just healed up in the time they were gone … while we went on living our normal work-a-day lives.

Of course, what Power did in those late summer, fall and winter months to prepare himself to get back into a race car last spring was incredibly painful, requiring enormous endurance and, yes, will. Months of painful therapy were required to not only get him back on his feet, but steel his body to the level of physical fitness required to pilot an Indy car – particularly on a road course, where bumps are felt up the spinal cord and arms are working furiously to keep the bronc-bucking car between the lines.

Among us mere mortals, just the idea of getting back into a car that inflicted the kind of pain Power had to endure would be a major accomplishment.

So what does Power do?

He not only gets back into his Penske team ride, he blows away the competition on the road and street courses. He was at the top of his game here today. Now, he’s four decent oval track finishes away from perhaps winning the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.

What’s in a name? Will Power says it all.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Speed remains soul of IndyCar Series racing

Sonoma, California – Lots of talk here this weekend about the future of the IndyCar Series.

Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway seems almost secondary to discussions about boosting the fortunes of the high-speed IZOD IndyCar series, which is still suffering from a split into two open-wheel series prior to the 1996 Indy 500.

The two series reunited back into one a couple years back, but TV viewership is somewhat embarrassing, and there are too many empty seats at the IndyCar venues – more empty seats than one can simply explain away by pointing to the economy.

So, where did things wrong?

Sure, the IRL-CART split of the 1990s was horribly timed, dishing out sustained damage. But I think it goes beyond that.

Somewhere along the line, I think IndyCar lost its edgy advantage, and a big part of that was wrapped up in speed. The Indianapolis 500 was a focal point of the speed frontier, an annual gathering of drivers and cars pushing the envelope and hurdling over speed barriers previously unreached.

That went away in the split, with the Indy Racing League opting to walk away from turbocharged engines after 1996. So, right at the very moment the two major open-wheel series were parting ways, the series that hosted the Indianapolis 500 also went away from the blazing speeds that saw 236 mph laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1996.

Safety, right? Of course, that’s a no-brainer. Keeping speeds down allows safety technology to further develop, and what engineers have done to make IndyCar car-bullets safer is nothing short of extraordinary. But again, at what cost?

When casual friends used to ask me about the difference between Indy car races and NASCAR stock cars events, I would tell them that going to a NASCAR race was like going to the annual air races in Reno – close and exciting – and watching an Indy car race was like watching the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight team – simultaneously breathtaking and terrifying.

I’m not endorsing danger, but I am pointing out that this mix of blinding speed and close racing with open wheels provided an adrenaline rush to millions of Indy car fans for decades. The rush is still felt at oval tracks, but let’s face it, the edge is not quite as ragged as it used to be.

The soul of the sport has always been speed and its untouched frontiers; I’m not sure fans are feeling that now.

New IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who worked wonders promoting Profession Bull Riders Inc. into something resembling mainstream sports status, seems to get it. The 2012-approved Indy engines will have turbocharged power, and the promised chassis designs should add some flair to the racing package. Bernard also wants to have the IndyCar Series champion rewarded with huge money, and he wants to better-market drivers. All good.

While I like the job the Versus network does with IndyCar events, I don’t see that niche channel pushing IndyCar’s profile higher. I kind of long for the old days of an ABC/ESPN partnership of IndyCar telecasts.

So, as IndyCar moves forward into the future, I wish the series a speedy return to its glorious past. Speeding things up might be a way to do that.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Say it along with me: Kizashi is a good thing

Sacramento, California – Your biggest problem with the new-for-2010 Suzuki Kizashi sedan might be pronouncing it.

For the record, it’s pronounced Kee-Zah-Shee.

Saying Suzuki Kizashi three times fast was too much for my tongue. Driving it, however, was a surprising pleasure.

My tester was the fairly basic SE, starting at a mere $21,499. The Kizashi can be had in any one of eight trim levels, priced as high as $26,749 for an SLS with all-wheel drive.

All models come with a 2.4-liter, 16-valve in-line 4 rated at 180 horsepower. Frankly, the Kizashi felt much more powerful than that, zipping forward aggressively from standing starts downtown and breezing down freeway on-ramps with impressive, robust energy.

And yet, gas mileage was excellent, about 2 miles per gallon better for both advertised numbers – 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.

So, right away, I’m impressed. But wait, there’s more.

This car is definitely not your grandfather’s – or your father’s – Suzuki. This is a full-out midsize sedan with real room for five adults. It looks like a mainstream midsize cruiser and feels like it in every way. Styling is not over the top, but it’s what I’d call stately-attractive.

Suzuki calls the Kizashi its new flagship vehicle, and that’s entirely appropriate. This is an attention-grabbing vehicle that stands up well against domestic and foreign competition. Additional bonus: a sweet 100,000-mile, seven-year powertrain limited warranty.

Obviously, Suzuki believes in its own engineering. That’s good to know.

Me, I like creature comforts, and they were plentiful in the affordable test ride. Standard fare included dual-zone climate control, rear-passenger air vents, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a 10-way power driver’s seat and leather touches sprinkled about, including on the steering wheel.

A long list of safety features, including air bags galore, added to the package.

I swear I kept looking for something to not like about this car, but I came up snake eyes every time. It’s not a Corvette … OK, there’s one. Otherwise, go test drive this car that you may not even have heard about among the blizzard of midsize offerings.

I’m told that the Japanese word Kizashi means that something great is coming. Well, great is a serious word. My experience was certainly very good, no matter how you say it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mazda6 earns its spot at head of the class

Sacramento, California – Driving 101 is easily understood behind the wheel of a 2010 Mazda6 sedan.

Driving 101 enrollment is dominated by newly licensed drivers, first-time new car buyers, young couples and young families. In all cases, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than the Mazda6 -- affordable, practical, right-sized, easy to drive and capable of carrying reasonable supplies of passengers and cargo.

Perfect midsize sedan? Malibu, Camry and Accord devotees will argue the point, but the Mazda6 is certainly in the discussion, with seven trim levels and starting as low as $18,600.

My tester was the 2010 Mazda6 i Grand Touring model with a willing 2.5-liter, 16-valve, variable-valve timing in-line 4. Horsepower is 170; max torque is 167 foot-pounds. The Mazda6 performed well with these middle-of-the-road numbers, enhanced by a quiet cabin that didn’t let much of the exterior noise reach the ears. Steering was effortless and quickly responsive.

Gas mileage is a so-so 21 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the open road, but those ratings won’t crush your pocketbook.

For a car starting at $26,000, the tester was loaded up with numerous luxury-level features, including a blasting Bose 10-speaker sound system. Mazda seems to have figured out that the Mazda6 is desired up and down the demographic range, from budget-watching retirees to youngsters settling into family life. Consequently, there’s an eclectic mix of comfort/convenience features on board.

My tester came with some $4,000 in extras, including a technology package (auto on/off xenon headlights, driver’s seat memory, Sirius Satellite Radio and more), but I would have been content with the basic standard package.

Regrets? I have a few, but one in particular.

The Mazda6 can be had with a blind-spot monitoring system, and I generally love this helpful feature. If you’re paranoid about blind spots on either side of your vehicle when you’re driving in heavy traffic – and I am among that group – you’re thankful for those little warning lights in the exterior mirrors. They illuminate when cars are in the blind spots, saving you a crash and all that goes with that.

The Mazda6 has this, plus three little beeps that sound off when the system senses you’re about to make an idiot move. Problem is, the system is flawed due to its super-sensitivity.

For example, it would beep when I hit the turn signal while blowing past a car traveling 30 miles per hour slower than myself on the freeway. The beep would be sounding when I was a good seven car lengths clear of trouble.

Likewise, it would beep when I was in the extreme left lane of the freeway, but adjacent to a five-foot wall on the driver’s side. It was beeping to warn me about a wall that was going nowhere. It did the same when I hit the left-turn signal to turn into an above-ground parking garage at my workplace. Why? It was warning me about the parked cars on the left side of the street before I reached the parking garage entrance.

Thankfully, the thing can be disabled. You folks who like to hear all warnings – for trouble real or imagined – might want to keep it on. I must confess that I grew weary of hearing false beeps.

Other than that, the Mazda6 gets a solid A-minus in my test-driving school.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Nissan Altima Coupe reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Nissan Altima Coupe 2.5 S 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.

Chrysler's big-brute 300C remains a player

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

Sacramento, California -- Back when everybody had money – and I’m talking about five years ago – Chrysler did something so unusual, so incredible, that I was left open-mouthed.

Chrysler rolled out a big-shouldered, aggressively styled sedan with serious horsepower and the kind of luxury features most people dream of … and charged a comparatively affordable price to boot. In other words, it did what Lexus, Infiniti and Acura had been doing for years.

Chrysler added to the appeal with a nostalgia-laced name, the 300, and presto! – people bought the big brute in numbers.

My ardor for the Chrysler 300 has not waned, even amid recession and pricey gasoline. If anything, I’m even more attracted to it – sort of a reminder of pre-recession muscle and mindless discretionary spending.

My 2010 tester was the 300C AWD, which translated to a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 putting out 360 horsepower and steering so light that I felt like a muscle-bound tyrant. In fact, steering is so light that drivers need to be forewarned. I had the mind-set that the big, slab-sided sedan needed a firm hand, but I had such a firm hand at first that I darn near steered the tester into the curbs. Good idea to keep this in mind, lest you look like an idiot. Nothing worse than knocking over the neighbor’s mailbox the first week you have the car.

Engine power flows smoothly and evenly. You almost feel like you’re not giving it enough, but a look in the rearview mirror confirms that you’re leaving traffic behind with little effort.

The interior features a long list of luxury items for a base price of $40,500. Heated seats, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel and rain-sensing windshield wipers are nice extras beyond the standard luxo fare. The middle of the 300C’s dashboard has that Chrysler plain-Jane look, but at least the automaker spiced up the analog gauges behind the steering wheel to make up for it. Cool night lighting on the gauges looks nice.

The car still draws “oohs” and “ahhs” from the neighbors. It looks hot-rod-limo cool, and the oversize grille is the most intimidating front end this side of a Great White Shark.

Customizers should consider the 300 a dream car, the kind of hardware you could spend years bending, tweaking and juicing up in your garage. Lots of room for creativity here, like turning over a five-star kitchen to the fry cook. If you can’t do something good with the 300, you probably ought to change hobbies.

For me, I liked my 300C on the roll, eating up open highway on a sunny day. Sure, the gas mileage is a wallet-sapping 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. But sailing along the roadways with that big Hemi growling away, well, it’s a nice way to get away from thoughts of sagging investments and endless bills.

Call it car therapy, and the 300C is the drug of choice.