Monday, November 22, 2010

Jimmie's NASCAR run never to be repeated

Sacramento, California – In case you haven’t heard, NASCAR uber champ Jimmie Johnson officially has been transported into the Dynasty category.

About time.

Winning four consecutive Sprint Cup championships was incredible, and yet Johnson was seemingly second-page news even as he was fighting at the top of the standings for a mind-blowing fifth title in a row. Johnson didn’t even have the lead coming into the last race of the seemingly endless 2010 Sprint Cup campaign; he must be slipping, right?

Then, after the checkered flag flew in the late-afternoon Florida sun on Sunday, and it sank in that Johnson had done what many would have called impossible at the dawn of this decade, the dynasty word started creeping into the media language.

And well it should, because let me tell you: This will never happen again. Ever.

As someone who witnessed UCLA win seven consecutive NCAA national championships in men’s basketball from and 10 of 12 from 1964 to 1975, let me assure you from that vantage point alone that what Johnson and his finely tuned team polished off Sunday will not be seen again in our lifetimes … or the lifetimes of our great-grandchildren.

UCLA did its magic during a time when the NCAA tournament was a comparative shadow of what it is now. I don’t think even those fabulous UCLA teams of years past could match their record in today’s coast-to-coast, 64-or-more-teams party. Just too much competition stretching across the land.

And yet Johnson has walked off with five trophies during what is being billed as the most competitive period in top-tier NASCAR racing history.

Can you imagine the coverage for a college football team winning five consecutive national championships in this era? Or a college basketball team? The Los Angeles Lakers will have to win three more NBA titles to stand on the podium with Johnson.

Alas, there seems to be a general belief that, in the end, Johnson is expected to win. I was stunned to tune in for ESPN’s SportsCenter on Sunday night only to see the sports network spending AN HOUR on the aftermath of the Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants NFL game, to the exclusion of everything else going on in the sports world.

Are you kidding me? Do you think ESPN would have done that if, say, the New York Yankees wrapped up a fifth consecutive Major League Baseball championship?

Of course not. And that sort of bespeaks the Jimmie Johnson Phenomenon in these times: Understated greatness. Maybe the magnitude of Johnson’s accomplishment will sink in even more with the passage of time.

I’m betting that will be the case. Why?

Because we’re never going to see it happen again.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Key to happiness found in Audi's turbo blast

Sacramento, California – Can a turbo buy happiness?
As far as I’m concerned, yes, I can be bought that cheaply.

Evidence is supplied by my recent week in the 2011 Audi Q5 2.0T quattro Tiptronic – a lot of words to describe a five-passenger luxury sport-utility vehicle.

But with a standard turbo-4 added to the mix for this model year, few words are needed. The tested model sprinted like a scalded cat, much to my delight. Kudos to the Audi engineers, because there is no turbo lag in this power plant, and performance seems to far outdistance the advertised 211 horsepower.

The Q5 has been beating up on some serious competition in acceleration tests, and I didn’t even have the rip-roaring 3.2-liter V-6 version with 270 horses. But keep in mind: that particular Q5 trim level with the big V-6 engine starts at $42,500 (compared with $35,200 for the tester), and gas mileage dips to 18/23 compared with my tester’s 20 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the open road.

Life is, as they say, a series of tradeoffs.

My Q5 was good company, even beyond the rush of mashing the accelerator. Interior cabin noise was negated admirably, and despite the car’s somewhat broad-shouldered construction, steering it in tight traffic and crowded parking lots was easily done.

Maybe traffic was getting out of my way purposely upon seeing the large, shark-devouring grille on the Q5’s front end. Who am I to argue with a little visual intimidation?

Standard comfort, convenience and safety features were just what you’d expect from the Audi brand. I particularly liked the understated, elegant layout of leather and wood trim amongst the goodies. It might take you some time to master the controls, so figure on diving deeply into the large owner’s manual if you get this Audi.

While I was impressed with the three-zone climate control listing, I’m not sure it really was controlling the climate in three specific segments of the vehicle. Then again, that seems to be asking a lot in a small environment.

This is one time I’d actually recommend the lesser of the two trim levels. In simple terms, if you want the 2011 Q5, get the 2.0T instead of the 3.2. I truly believe the less-expensive model will stack up as the best deal for most buyers … except perhaps for those buyers who want everything. And I can’t argue with the latter.

But for my money – and perhaps yours – the Audi Q5 2.0T delivers inside and out, and especially on the roll.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nissan four-door delivers maximum enjoyment

Sacramento, California – The Nissan Maxima has always been one of my favorite passenger cars. Whenever one is available for testing, I snatch it up in a New York minute.

So, naturally, the 2011 Maxima 3.5 SV was a welcome sight in my driveway. Nissan calls it “the four-door sports car,” and its willing 3.5-liter V-6 power plant with 290 horsepower helps the Maxima live up to that billing.

But it’s more than that. The Maxima is pretty much a torquey Infiniti luxury car wearing Nissan badging.

Performance, smoothness, luxury and comfort. What’s not to like?

The latest Maxima has been jazzed up with some sporty touches, but rest assured that the basics that have long made the car so appealing remain locked in place. The book-length list of standard features is still a jaw-dropper.

It will take you five minutes just to read through the safety/security and comfort/convenience features. Superior safety standards include an energy-absorbing steering column, seat-and-roof side-curtain air bags and specially engineered crumple zones.

The top-drawer comfort and convenience features that come at no extra cost include leather seating surfaces (plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob), automatic on-off halogen headlights, a power sliding moonroof, a blasting Bose audio system and power everything.

You might think $40,000 would be an appropriate price for all you get, but the starting fare on the tested SV model is only $33,530. Numerous extras pushed the bottom line on the tester to $38,060, still below what you pay for an equivalent car produced by other automakers.

On the roll, the Maxima is a quiet comfort zone, even when the V-6 is asked to deliver the max. And when you do ask for the max, you get it right now. On dicey freeways, the Maxima darts out of harm’s way with just a blip from the right foot. It’s an agile, quick-reacting performer in city traffic. Climbing hills is a snap; brakes grab hard and hold on. A spacious trunk allows you to pack generously.

I had the opportunity to test the standard fog lights, which penetrated the mist admirably, and at just the right angle to make me feel secure.

Some colleagues gripe that the styling is a bit conservative, but that falls short in my book. I like the feel of a sports car, but the Maxima does not need a spoiler/wing glued to the back to make it look like one. I like its elegant, but sleek look just fine, thank you.

And I guess that’s the point. Given everything that I like about Maximas past, the 2011 version stands out to me as the kind of car you feel comfortable taking to the ballpark or the country club.

It plays all roles, and plays them well.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

2011 Mustang reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2011 Ford Mustang V6 Premium 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, along with my "Oil Drips" observations on anything with wheels, 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.

ES 350 an 'affordable' ride in the Lexus lineup

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

Sacramento, California -- Sure, you want the Lexus. Lots of people do.

You want that wood-trimmed steering wheel, the silky smooth ride, high horsepower laid out like hot butter on a steaming roll, all the fancy comfort/convenience features, the treated-like-a-king routine when you take the car in for routine maintenance and those envious stares from your neighbors.

Who wouldn’t want that? But $50,000 is a high price to pay these days.

Unless you get the Lexus ES 350 sedan. You can get a 2010 ES 350 for less than $35,000 – remember, it’s that time of year to haggle big-time on the 2010 models – or get a 2011 model for just a few hundred bucks more if you’re a serious haggler. The 2011 is essentially unchanged from the 2010, except Lexus trimmed out the powertrain on the 2011 sedan to dish up just a few less horses and accept regular-grade gas.

Don’t ask me how. Just know this: Both model year ES 350s put out about 270 horses from a 3.5-liter V-6 that frankly feels more robust than that number would indicate. Handling? Puh-leeze, this is a bank-vault solid Lexus sedan that can be steered with one finger in almost all conditions.

OK, the exterior looks is pretty vanilla, but that understated ES 350 bodywork still oozes class, and once you’re belted into the cockpit seat, you start feeling pretty good about all the standard goodies within your reach. Even better, the center dash is not cluttered with small buttons to control your climate and on-the-roll entertainment. It’s all very easy to use, and again, laid out in a Lexus-level classy manner.

Be advised that you can opt for the Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package with 14 speakers, or the ventilated front seats, or the intuitive parking system that lets you know you’re about to ding that rusting, decades-old Datsun the boyfriend of your neighbor’s daughter parks behind your drive way every night. But those options will quickly send you into the $40,000-and-up range.

And if you’re heading that way, you might as well look at the opulent Lexus LS models.

However, if you want the tried-and-true Lexus luxury/engineering at an affordable price, the ES 350 is the way to go. It gives you pretty much the full Lexus experience, and by the way, it’s a super family travel car with a spacious trunk.

Customizers, if you dig in on this car, you want to make some major changes. Like I said, the ES 350 will not bowl you over with risk-taking styling. Let your creative juices flow when you chop into this baby.