Friday, December 30, 2011

As 2011 fades, time to hand out awards

Sacramento, California – Another year has flown by, and it’s getting harder each year to hand out awards and get the Christmas decorations packed away in reasonable order.

Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts. Here they are:

CAR OF THE YEAR: Amid all the opulent luxury, incredibly complex technology and off-the-charts horsepower, I like the new Fiat 500 (pictured) above all others.

It’s not the fastest, most sophisticated car, but it is an affordable, nicely styled, fuel-sipping runabout that is right for the times. I like what the Fiat 500 represents, because it represents what I have heard from a lot of family, friends and colleagues this year: I need to be more practical, and less wasteful.

If a car can represent an idea -- even a car available in limited numbers -- that says a lot. I doubt that the Fiat 500 will make the kind of splash that the post-World War II Volkswagen made, but I think it’s a car worth having … and it’s a shot in the arm for Chrysler to be linked wheel to wheel with Fiat.

AUTOMAKER OF THE YEAR: How about America’s Big Three sharing the trophy? What a strange journey it has been … General Motors and Chrysler widely cursed for taking government money, even though that helped them get back on their feet, preserve tens of thousands of jobs and help save a massive U.S. industry. Ford, which seemingly couldn’t do anything right a few years ago, basically stepping to the head of the class with its popular products and gaudy earnings.

The U.S. manufacturers have regained some ground at home against Toyota and Honda, although to be fair, both Japanese automakers suffered supply chain problems due to the early 2011 earthquake/tsunami in Japan and the aftermath. It will be interesting to see how GM, Ford and Chrysler do once Toyota and Honda fully regain their footing.

RACE DRIVER OF THE YEAR: Decided in the last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the year in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Tony Stewart put on a drive for the ages. In a race where Carl Edwards did virtually everything he had to do to lock up the championship, Stewart came back from multiple setbacks to take the win. On the way to doing that, Stewart appeared to be in a class by himself – a remarkable effort given the Sprint Cup Series’ highly touted competition parity.

AUTO RACE OF THE YEAR: Selfishly, I have to go with the centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. The “greatest spectacle in racing” surpassed that claim with a day drenched in history – past winning drivers, winning cars from decades ago and an over-the-top party atmosphere.

The race itself was the cherry on top of the sundae, with hard-luck rookie J.R. Hildebrand crashing within sight of the checkered flag, handing a storybook win to Dan Wheldon, who led the last few hundred yards of the race.

It was a race to keep in one’s heart forever. The same can be said of Wheldon, who crashed to his death in the IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas in October.

We’re just hours away from popping the champagne corks to ring in 2012. So many changes ahead. So much to enjoy. Hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Happy new year to all.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Three dates, three losses ... and great memories

Sacramento, California -- This blog will take the week off next week, as a I look forward to immersing myself in my little family -- grateful for yet another Christmas that we will enjoy together.

As we near year's end, three dates and three losses from 2011 are with me ... and likely will be for some time.

On March 9, my longtime Indy Car riding mechanic friend, Harry Dean, died at the age of 97, following complications from surgery. Harry missed being the oldest surviving Indianapolis 500 participant (and the last from the pre-World War II era) by about six months.

In 1937, the last year for riding mechanics at the Indy 500, Harry rode with racing great Ted Horn to a third-place finish, the top three cars finishing within 20 seconds of each other. It would be the closest 1-2-3 Indy 500 finish for the next 45 years.

Harry and I would routinely meet for lunch or dinner, and he would regale me with stories of an Indy Car racing era long past, a time when drivers would play softball in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield during the month of May, a time when drivers would take great pleasure sneaking a woman into the pit area (forbidden by the rules long after WWII), a time when racers would drive their race cars on public roads from racetrack to racetrack -- living and playing hard all along the way.

When Harry would speak, I could picture all of it, somehow wishing that I had been alive back then to drink it in. I miss our meals Harry. And I miss you.

On Oct. 16, Dan Wheldon crashed to his death in the IndyCar Series finale on the super-fast Las Vegas oval. Dan died less than five months after I watched him record a storybook victory in the centennial Indianapolis 500.

It was all so heartbreaking -- the loss of Dan's instantly likable personality, his leaving behind a lovely wife and two beautiful little children and the sight of diamond-hard Indy Car drivers sobbing at his passing. Just today, IndyCar released the results of an exhaustive investigation that confirmed what I already figured out: Dan had the terrible misfortune of impacting the Vegas track's exterior catch fence on the cockpit side. Even a state-of-the-art helmet is not enough to adequately protect a driver's head hitting a vertical fence support pole at more than 150 miles per hour.

Bad, awful luck for Dan. And a hole in our hearts as we move on to remember him and watch the sport we love.

Finally, Dec. 14 brought the news I was expecting since July 15, when my sole sibling, 61-year-old Stephen C. Glover, was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Steve simply slept away this week at his home, ending suffering I would have paid dearly to spare him.

I last visited with Steve over the Labor Day weekend. And in his usual stoic style, he talked frankly about the end to come and how he wanted to spare me any pain at the end. I've seen much bravery in 35 years of being a professional journalist and my lifetime obsession with auto racing, but I can't think of a more courageous outlook in the face of darkness than what I saw in Steve.

I'm grateful that we shared Steve's last Indianapolis 500 -- on the 50th anniversary of his first in 1960 -- shoulder to shoulder in the frontstretch grandstand in 2010. I'll always think of Steve when I attend future 500s, with the playing of "Back Home Again in Indiana" and the command to start engines.

I hate goodbyes, and this year has had too many for me. Yet I am glad to carry with me the memories of these three remarkable people. Gone from Earth, but not from my heart.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Challenger lineup brings the horses, and fun

This review originally appeared in the November 2011 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- There are some invitations that you just don’t turn down – like a Halloween Party at the Playboy Mansion, a skybox weekend at the Super Bowl and a Bay Area buddy who wants you to take some short romps in the 2012 Dodge Challenger lineup.

He didn’t have to ask twice.

Let me preface this by saying that if I had all the money in the world, my “drive around fun car” would not be a Bentley or a Ferrari or a Bugatti Veyron. I’d opt for a Dodge Challenger. Competition Orange if you please.

While my seat time was brief, I can tell you that the Challenger name has not been cheapened by the 2012 model year offerings.

Horsepower ratings on the SXT and R/T versions remain admirably high, and performance reflects that. The Challenger equipped with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 (305 horses) feels a little heavy off the line and adds a little engine grunt noise at the top of a steep climb. But the overall throaty roar of the engine at full song is gratifying.

Dodge is touting an 18-speaker, 900-watt Harman Kardon audio system, and that is certainly an impressive piece of sound equipment to ponder. But the Challenger’s interior remains comparatively plain and uncomplicated.

I don’t have a big problem with that as I know the automaker wants to make the Challenger available for the high $20,000s to middle $30,000s set. I can sacrifice some interior luxury for high performance.

And then there’s the new Challenger SRT8 392, which delivers omigod-are-you-kidding-me performance through a 392-cubic-inch Hemi V-8. The max horsepower and torque numbers on that engine both come in at 470. And yes, your on-road fantasies will come true with this power plant.

Classic American muscle? Oh, yes sir! This coupe makes big smoke going zero to 60 mph in less than five seconds. And yet, the big-brute engine delivers an advertised 23 miles per gallon on the highway.

Please note that the interior of the 392 is a mind-blowing mixture of retro flash and modern-day dash. And the 392 also starts around $44,000.

Does the latest Challenger make the muscle car grade?

Let’s put it this way: I begged my buddy for a return trip the next day.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Newest Charger upholds model's rich history

Sacramento, California – Strangely, some car models inspire rancorous debate and political sniping.

Take the Dodge Charger, for example.

Some folks can’t get over the Chargers of old -- big and brawny and loaded with horsepower that challenged the stability of the suspension and the grip of the tires. Those were the REAL Chargers, old-schoolers say.

Well, OK, but I did carefully read the owner’s manual on my recent ride and checked the exterior badging. Sure enough, it was a Dodge Charger SE with rear-wheel drive. Or a Dodge Charger Rallye Plus if you opt for the automaker’s more-flashy language.

Let me say up front that this was the “Charger Lite” version, meaning that it had a 3.6-liter variable-valve timing Pentastar V-6 with “only” 292 horsepower. Keep in mind that you can get a Charger SRT8 with a 6.4-liter V-8 laying down a maximum 465 horsepower.

That SRT8 puts you in a different economic bracket, and you’d be wise to put speeding ticket estimates into that budget.

My tester had a most-reasonable base price of $25,170, but it was dressed up with a nearly obscene number of extras (power sunroof, rearview camera and humidity sensor to name a tiny few) to bring the bottom line to $34,955.

The luxury was nice, but the basics were sufficient to keep me happy. That included the V-6.

No, the V-6 Charger cannot shut down a Corvette off the line, but the nearly 300 horses served up in deep, throaty tones by the V-6 were satisfying and entirely competent in all driving situations.

The Charger sedan received a much-needed restyling for the 2011 model year, and that carries over nicely in 2012. It looks American muscular from bumper to bumper, and the interior dash is a vast improvement from past years. The latter is much more organized and easier to use.

Handling was rock solid. Steering was a perfect blend of light-but-firm. The noise reaching the interior cabin was surprisingly muffled.

Naturally, purists scoff at four doors on a storied American muscle nameplate. To which I say: So what?

You want two-door muscle for 2012, hunt down a Dodge Challenger. They’ve made plenty of them.

As for me, I enjoyed every minute of my week in the Charger, a combination of four-door convenience and nostalgia-laced styling.

Old is new again. And you’ll get no argument from me: The current Charger wears it muscle and its lineage admirably well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Auto racing 2011: A few hits ... and misses

Sacramento, California – The 2011 auto racing season is just about wrapped up, except for a fairly meaningless Formula One race in Brazil this weekend, so it’s time to check my personal scorecard of predictions put down early this year.

On the NASCAR Sprint Cup front, here’s what I had to say in February:

As for me, I’m looking at Carl Edwards as the most likely driver to end (Jimmie) Johnson’s streak. Edwards can drive short, long, medium-fast and super-fast tracks at a high level. It’s just a matter of time before he puts a consistent campaign together. This could be the year.

Well, Edwards fell short by one pass for position and a superhuman drive by Tony Stewart (pictured) in South Florida last weekend. Let me chime in by saying that Stewart’s Sunday drive was the most incredible single-race effort that I’ve seen in more than 40 years of following the sport. He was like a wolf among sheep. The only near-wolf running in the same pack with Stewart was Edwards, but the latter came up just short.

Edwards had his chances and optimized them to the max. Stewart just beat him with an otherworldly effort. Edwards said as much on Sunday. I can’t argue with his analysis.

Before the first IndyCar Series race of the 2011 season, here was my call:

Defending 500 winner and Indy car series champion Dario Franchitti remains the top contender, but I kind of think the Roger Penske team is out for redemption after seeing the last two season titles snatched from its grasp due to uncharacteristic team mistakes. Look for Penske pilot Helio Castroneves to claim his fourth Indy 500 victory in May and then finally put together a solid season to take the series crown as well.

That was a huge swing and a miss on my part. Castroneves was not even close to being a factor in either the Indianapolis 500 or the IndyCar Series championship. It was left to Castroneves teammate Will Power to carry the Penske banner to the last race of the season. And for the third year in a row, a misstep on a pit stop cost a Penske pilot the championship in favor of Franchitti.

In May, just before the centennial running of the Indianapolis 500, I did name Dan Wheldon as my dark horse pick to win the race. In storybook fashion, he did precisely that, leading the last few hundred feet of the race after rookie leader J.R. Hildebrand crashed in the fourth turn, within sight of the checkered flag.

I’d give back all my predictions and some prized possessions if that would bring Wheldon back. The incredibly talented, two-time Indy 500 champion crashed to his death in the year’s most horrifying crash in the IndyCar Series finale in Las Vegas.

Rest in peace, Dan. We’re missing you already.

What will 2012 bring? Check back with me in February.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Big QX56 evolves with more power, same luxury

Sacramento, California – The Infiniti QX56 luxury sport-utility vehicle and I have a history.

I’ve test-driven numerous versions of this SUV, alternating between joy over its numerous comfort/convenience perks and concern over its ugly fuel mileage.

Fast-forward to the present day: Things haven’t changed much. I still like the myriad amenities the QX56 has to offer, but it still drinks gas at an alarming rate – 14 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.

In fairness, that’s an improvement over the 13/18 ratings of just a few years ago. And the current generation’s fuel mileage is an improvement sparking an engine that is bigger and more powerful than it used to be. More about that in a second.

Let’s start with the basics: It’s big, like it always has been.

The QX56 – restyled for 2011 and carried over pretty much as is for 2012 -- will seat up to eight in comfort, seemingly with plenty of room to install a dance floor and a mirror ball. Take my word for it, this is not the vehicle to take into the tunnel of a tight parking garage.

Splashed across the dash is a blizzard of comfort/convenience controls – all easy to see and use. Within easy reach: climate control, audio entertainment and just about everything else to keep one comfortable and entertained.

You can get the QX56 in two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive versions. Mine was the latter, more-expensive model, starting at just shy of $62,000. No, luxury does not come cheap these days.

The power plant is a 5.6-liter V-8 with 400 horsepower. To put that in perspective, the 2004 QX56 I tested (the one with inferior fuel mileage compared with the current version) was a 5.6-liter V-8 making 315 horsepower.

Yeah, I’d say the engineers did their work in the power-per-gallon department. And with 400 horsepower, it’s like they wanted to give the big QX56 all the power it needed to get the job done. On that score, my tester did precisely that … all with relatively little noise bouncing back into the cockpit.

Please note that the QX56 has an on-the-fly road-warning system that lets you know if you’re about to crash into another car while making a lane change … or if you seem to be drifting out of your lane. The problem is that the system is so sensitive that it barks annoying beeps for even the slightest variations within a lane. Maybe the system overcompensates for the QX56’s bulk, guessing that the driver is about to take off an exterior mirror with a six-inch drift within a lane. Annoying? Yes. Turn it off? Affirmative.

Still, I don’t want to let a few beeps spoil a good ride.

If you have plentiful cash to spend, care little about the high price of gasoline and need a big, luxurious SUV to carry around a lot of people and cargo, the QX56 should make you happy for many a mile.

Friday, November 11, 2011

2012 Challengers reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My take on the seriously smokin' 2012 Dodge Challenger lineup appears in the latest, November 2011, 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.

Through the ages, Civic's appeal is consistent

This review originally appeared in the October 2011 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- I have an old friend in the Midwest, a “buy American” guy all the way. If you’re not buying a car from a Detroit automaker, he often said, you’re hurting the U.S. economy.

And when it came time for him to buy a car for his little girl, he bought her … a Honda Civic.

And that, I believe, speaks volumes about the venerable Civic. It gives people what they want: Dependable, affordable, gas-sipping, feature-loaded and safe. You can double-down on that bet when it comes to buying a car for the kids.

The Civic has been restyled for 2012, although you have to look pretty hard to see the altered architecture. My tester was the EX-L sedan with a navigation system – the priciest of nine trim levels, starting at $23,455. Mine was pretty loaded up. No extras, and the $770 destination and handling charge brought the bottom line to $24,225.

For that price, you get enough safety features to make a Consumer Reports editor smile. The seats are leather trimmed; the steering wheel also is wrapped in leather. The 160-watt audio system with six speakers does a marvelous job. Heated front seats are a luxury perk, but they were included in the cost of my EX-L. The first three months of XM Satellite Radio are on the house.

Everything was comfortable, understandable and functional on the inside. This being a Civic sedan, it’s built for five passengers. Realistically, it’s comfortable for four.

The standard power plant is a 1.8-liter, 16-valve, i-VTEC in-line 4 with 140 horses. You can set it for “eco” mode at the push of a button, a little extra savings for a car rated at 28 miles per gallon in the city and 39 mpg on the highway.

Nice engine. But be advised that you really have to jump hard on the gas in some situations – merging on the freeway and hitting a high Sierra Nevada hill, for example. Full force with the right foot produces a fairly loud scream that echoes around the cockpit.

One other annoyance was an odd quirk in the XM Satellite Radio readout. It showed the station you started with, then kept it highlighted even as you changed stations with the steering wheel-mounted controls. Why not just highlight the station you’re on? Seems like a simple fix.

Trunk space was surprisingly roomy, and believe me, I filled up the cargo area about 16 different ways. The exterior look remains aerodynamic and sleek. You know it’s a Civic at first glance.

So if you want something for the kids – or a second car -- that will run forever and give you/them few problems, the 2012 model carries on the tradition.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Big Ford F-150 is a hard-working brute

Sacramento, California – I’m not ashamed to admit it: I’ve never been a big truck guy.

I have nothing against big pickups; I’ve test driven scores of them over the years. It’s just that they don’t fit my urban/suburban lifestyle. If I was running a farm or a ranch, or making a daily run to a construction site, things would be different.

But in my world, I’m looking for a big pickup’s cargo area perhaps two days out of the year – one maybe to help someone make a house move, and another to transport a tall Christmas tree down from the Sierra Nevada foothills.

And so when I took delivery of a Ford F-150 4X4 SuperCab (145-inch wheelbase with Lariat Series equipment), I was flat-out intimidated. It was enormous. Parked next to a Jeep Patriot sport-utility vehicle, the F-150 looked entirely capable of swallowing the Patriot in its giant cargo bed and ripping down the road.

I did not step into the F-150; it was more like a boyhood flashback of climbing up to the top level of the playground monkey bars. Up in the F-150’s cockpit, I could see surrounding homes for miles around.

Right away I feel like I’m in trouble. The exterior mirrors stick out so far that I’m fearful of bumping off sidewalk pedestrians as I drive down the street. Thankfully, the mirrors fold inward once you’re parked. And parking is best executed in a wide, expansive area. I avoided taking the F-150 into anything resembling a tight parking lot, believing I’d get struck and be trapped there for life.

People who drive big pickups on a regular basis have every right to call me a city-fied wimp, because everything I fear in a big truck is exactly what its fans love. In the tester, that translated to plenty of room for up to six folks, the cargo-carrying capacity of an aircraft carrier and enough comfort/convenience features to make your driving chores seem like a vacation on Luxury Island.

I must say that I was impressed with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 engine, which I initially guessed would be overmatched by the F-150’s imposing frame. Not a chance; the EcoBoost powered the big brute along with impressive ease. Fuel mileage is a tepid 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 mpg on the highway, but hey, I understand that buyers of this truck aren’t looking for Prius-like numbers.

Interior comfort and ride were excellent, and the F-150’s steering was delightfully light. Dashboard controls were large, easy to see and a snap to use.

I did not like the turn signal shifter/control that does not snap into place like most others do. This is probably more of a “me” thing as I just can’t get used to this particular turn signal device. I’m never quite sure what to do when I’m changing lanes, and it seems like I’m always turning the signal too far or not far enough. Turn signal-challenged? I plead guilty.

This particular trim level of the F-150 is a nearly $40,000 investment and should be treated as such. You buy this truck to do some serious work for a long period of time. And while I may be a pickup wimp, I’ve driven enough of them to know that the F-150 is a hard worker that is not likely to let you down.

Friday, October 28, 2011

This Patriot's colors run rather well

Sacramento, California –-For an automaker that counts significant World War II glory as part of its history, Jeep has sure taken its lumps over the years.

While I have not fallen in love with every new Jeep product introduced over the past generation, I personally believe the rocks thrown at Jeep have been a little large … and a little unfair. It’s almost as if purists are angry that Jeep doesn’t stick to producing Wranglers and other vehicles with the old World War II DNA.

Take the Jeep Patriot Latitude 4X4. Here’s a nice, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle that will cost you around $22,000 and change, do just about everything right and carries a long list of standard features. Most vehicles making these claims are deserving of respect.

And it has my respect. The Patriot was freshened in 2011 and gets a few more tweaks for 2012, but essentially, it’s the same package.

Standard propulsion at Latitude level comes from a 2.4-liter in-line 4 with 172 horsepower. No, that won’t blow off a sports car, but it will handle most of the challenges found on city streets and rural highways.

My tester had an easy-to-use dashboard of controls. Cargo-carrying capacity was easily expanded to generous with an easy fold of the 60/40-split rear seats.

Fuel mileage is a so-so 21 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

I did not take my Patriot over a rock-strewn trail in the Sierra Nevada – I suggest the Jeep Wrangler for folks who consider this fun – but it certainly looked rugged enough in the fine Jeep tradition. Even with those rugged, squared shoulders, the Patriot was silky smooth and surprisingly quiet on freeway runs.

Seriously fine features include electronic roll mitigation, hill-start assist and halogen headlamps.

But just don’t take my word for it.

The recent third quarter report by the Sacramento-based California New Car Dealers Association showed that Jeep posted a 54 percent gain in new light vehicle registrations in the first nine months of 2011, compared with the same period in 2010. That topped ALL brands sold in California.

Hmmm, somebody must know something, right?

And given the near-constant reminders that the Patriot ultimately will be supplanted by a Fiat crossover, now might be a good time to get a deal on a Patriot.

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dennis Gage live at Sacramento Automobile Museum...Oct. 28

Sacramento, California -- The California Automobile Museum in Sacramento is looking to reach out to a larger audience of car enthusiasts.

And what better way to do that than with the instantly recognizable Dennis Gage, host of SPEED network’s “My Classic Car”?

With his prominent handlebar mustache and signature catchphrase – “Honor the timeless classics” – Gage has lured an army of viewers into the world of classic automobiles, car shows and collectors.

On Friday, Oct. 28, Gage will be the featured speaker at the California Automobile Museum’s annual fundraising dinner. Starting at 5:30 p.m., the dinner’s keynote address is “Life in the Fast Lane – Bash with the ’Stache.”

The evening also will feature a cocktail hour, live and silent auction, a catered dinner and other entertainment. A wide selection of auction prizes includes automotive collectibles.

Tickets are $75 each and can be purchased on-site and online at

Corporate and sponsor members of the museum receive two free tickets as part of their membership packets. Corporate museum memberships or sponsorships are offered for $500.

The California Automobile Museum features scores of motor vehicles of all stripes – from early horseless carriages, to opulent classics, to racing machines to contemporary makes. Special exhibits and educations classes are also part of the experience.

The museum has one of the most extensive docent programs in the nation.

The California Automobile Museum at 2200 Front Street is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and every third Thursday until 9 p.m.

For more details, call (916) 442-6802.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Death of a Champion

This commentary first appeared in the Oct. 18, 2011, edition of The Sacramento Bee. -- mg

Sacramento, California -- For those who have followed IndyCar racing for decades and delved into its century-old history, Sunday's terrible events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway came as no surprise.

And yet the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was no less shocking, no less heartbreaking. If anything, Wheldon's death unveiled the compassion and soul of the people who race mega-speed missiles for a living.

Drivers whose hard, sometimes emotionless faces have been common in past interviews wept openly – a gut-wrenching and yet spirit-lifting display of unvarnished humanity.

TV commentators, team owners and drivers said all the right things amid Sunday's grief. They accurately noted that we've become so accustomed to race drivers walking away from the most horrific crashes that we've become jaded. We expect drivers to pop up out of the cockpits of mangled cars and give a jaunty wave to a relieved crowd.

Advances in car and track safety over the past 40 years have helped foster that feeling of security. Wearing fire-resistant suits and protective helmets, IndyCar drivers are wrapped in a virtually indestructible cocoon, their bodies held in place by belts and padding.

And yet the laws of physics and flesh are brutal and unbending. Simply, a human subjected to hard impact at 225 mph can perish in any number of ways. The drivers know this entering every race.

This knowledge inspires awe in the rest of us, that they can compete in close quarters at blinding speed, week after week, knowing the potential consequences.

It takes a lot to stare down a 99-mph fastball or a charging, supremely conditioned linebacker, but let's face it: There's no comparison between those things and the dangers drivers of open-wheel racing cars face.

It used to be much more dangerous, of course.

In the 1950s and '60s, it was common for two, three or even four name drivers to die in Indy cars every year. Drivers who not only survived but won in those eras – A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti among them – would admit they didn't strive to have friendships among their colleagues because the odds were those competitors might not be around long.

I remember that era well, but alas, I, too, had become complacent lately.
After Sunday's 15-car crash at Las Vegas – the most violent I've seen in my 50 years of watching IndyCar events – I was hopeful that every driver involved would be interviewed after a checkup at the infield care center. But as I watched rescue teams at work and mentally checked off those drivers who had walked away, a dreadful realization came over me.

Oh my God, not Dan. Please, not Dan.

And yet it was Dan. All the safety team actions and the body language of the drivers told the awful truth. And then it was official.

Dan Wheldon – 33, father of two, husband, sparkling personality, well-spoken ambassador of the sport, instantly likable and IndyCar champion – was gone.

In my view, it was IndyCar's darkest day since May 30, 1964, when Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald died in a huge, fiery crash on the second lap of the Indianapolis 500. I was there that day, a 10-year-old seeing his fourth Indy 500. I have never completely gotten over that crash and its horror.

Now I will never forget Oct. 16, 2011. And I'll always remember Dan Wheldon, a champion.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Smaller engine, big surprise in Altima ride

Sacramento, California – It had been some time since I had reviewed a Nissan Altima sedan, so I eagerly anticipated its arrival.

Oh, here it is now and … Rats, it’s a 2.5!!!

A 2012 Nissan Altima 2.5 S to be specific, but the key factor here is 2.5.

I much prefer the 3.5 Altimas, with their 3.5-liter V-6s pouring out 270 glorious horses. The V-6 makes the Altima perform at a level resembling the pricier Nissan Maxima. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed more than a few moments blowing off hot cars in a series of Altima 3.5 testers.

Well, gotta live with it. The next morning I’m heading down the freeway entrance ramp with my right foot deep in the tester’s 2.5-liter in-line 4 with 175 horsepower, and I zip past a pretty good car. About two seconds later, I blast past what I consider to be a very frisky foreign model.

What gives? This Altima 2.5 S is performing way above what I remember. I looked it up: I tested 2002 Altima 2.5 S, and the horsepower rating was exactly what it is now, 175 ponies. But I don’t remember that car giving me the oomph the current model was giving me.

Somewhere along the line while I was driving Altima 3.5s, the Nissan engineers must have tuned the four-banger to run with the wolves. Nice surprise? You bet.

Everything else in the 2012 Altima was just what you’d expect from a model that compares favorably with heavyweights such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Interior space was plentiful, even in the back. Trunk space was likewise ample.

An uncomplicated, easy-to-use layout of dashboard controls made for easy motoring. The car looked aerodynamically pleasing riding on its 16-inch all-season tires. A long list of standard comfort/convenience features makes the $22,570 manufacturer’s suggested retail price seem like a bargain.

My tester was dressed up with a couple of “Convenience” packages that included an eight-way power driver’s seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a power sliding moonroof and dual zone automatic temperature control. The bottom line on my ride was $26,320.

In truth, I could have done without the extras and been perfectly happy in the car. And fuel mileage ratings of 23 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway felt pretty good too.

Would I recommend the Altima 2.5 S to a friend? Yes, without hesitation. After all, horsepower isn’t everything, and saving a few bucks on gas in a still-peppy car makes my day.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Restyled Civic reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the restyled-for-2012 Honda Civic EX-L sedan appears in the latest, October 2011, 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.

2012 CLS550 upholds Mercedes' reputation

This review originally appeared in the September 2011 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California -- mg

Sacramento, California -- Fall approaches, and for car folks, that means one thing: 2012 is here!

And what better way to start out the new year than a week in the redesigned-for-2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550?

I’ve heard this car described as a four-door coupe, and I have no idea what that means. Sure, it’s a sedan with the soul of a Dodge Viper, but that does not make it a coupe in my book. The four doors were the tip-off for me. Just saying.

Descriptions aside, this is an amazing car. My, doesn’t it look great just parked there in my driveway, with a screaming Mercedes tri-star centered in the middle of a menacing grille. Inside, quality is Mercedes-like, although oddly, the cupholders seem a little cheap.

The engine is a twin-turbo 4.6-liter V-8 with 402 horsepower and 443 foot-pounds of torque, which comes in at max blast as early as 1,800 revolutions per minute. Say no more; the CLS can scream with the best of them.

Acceleration is not just brisk. It’s get-a-grip-on-the-wheel intimidating, and you quickly realize that it wouldn’t take all that much to hit the electronically controlled limit of 130 miles per hour. Too bad. I’d like to get this car to a track and watch it chase down a Highway Patrol cruiser. Alas, I was too chicken to attempt this on the public roads.

Ventilated brakes on both ends bring the CLS550 to a stop with tailhook-like authority. During all the power blasts and on-a-dime stopping exertions, barely a sound makes its way into the cockpit. Now that’s impressive.

So, you’d expect to pay, what, $100,000 minimum for this car, right? That would be a fair estimate. But the tester started at a relatively affordable $71,300. Mine was jazzed up with extras to put the bottom line at $82,765. That’s still not bad for a Mercedes of this quality.

Saving money on the car deal will come in handy as gas mileage on the 2012 CLS550 is 16 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway.

That’s a lot of pay going out the dual chrome exhaust pipes. But if you have the cash, the CLS550 is the first positive bit of news coming out in 2012.

Friday, September 30, 2011

WUNDERCARS! exhibit opens in Sacramento

Sacramento, California -- Much of my past six months has been devoted to helping the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento launch its new main exhibit -- WUNDERCARS!, the story of the German automobile at home and abroad.

The museum staff has handled much the heavy lifting, and the exhibit makes its debut Oct. 1.

The machinery assembled so far is fantastic. The main exhibit area contains German cars of all stripes, many of them highly valued by collectors. Over the exhibit's nearly eight-month run (through May 11, 2012), four separate German marques also will be featured in a separate, highlighted area.

Through Nov. 28, Porsche is in the spotlight. Again, our collection of Porsche models is stellar.

Through the exhibit's run, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen also will have their time in the spotlight.

Our corporate sponsors, both Sacramento-based, are The Niello Co. and the Von Housen Mercedes-Benz Group of Dealers. These auto retailers, serving much of the Sacramento Valley, played a big role in getting WUNDERCARS! rolling.

Please visit the museum if you come to Sacramento in the near future. WUNDERCARS! and the rest of the museum exhibits provide a first-class visual/educational automotive experience.

The California Automobile Museum features scores of motor vehicles – from early horseless carriages, to opulent classics, to racing machines to contemporary makes. Special exhibits and educations classes are also part of the experience.

The California Automobile Museum at 2200 Front Street is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and every third Thursday until 9 p.m.

For more details, call (916) 442-6802. The CAM website is

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Special Volvo S60: It's all about the pop

Sacramento, California – The 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design AWD sedan is a car you can get lost in … literally and figuratively.

Mashing the gas gets you lost in a hurry via a 3-liter, turbocharged, in-line 6 producing a maximum 325 horsepower. More about that in a minute.

The other thing is you can get lost just trying to describe the car.

OK, let’s give it a go: The S60 received a serious makeover for the 2011 model year, and yes, that was a mission well done by the Volvo engineers. Then for 2012, we get something called the R-Design model. That was my tester, starting at about $42,500.

So, break it down: It’s a Volvo. It’s a 2012. It has a turbocharged, six-cylinder engine. It has all-wheel drive. And it’s an R-Design. Got it?

So what’s an R-Design?

Well, you get upgraded, auto racing-style sport seats in the front, enhanced steering and handling perks. Oh, and you get an “exterior styling kit” that enables you to spice up the Volvo’s skin and undergarments.

Is all that worth it? Well, sure, I like a sporty, good-looking car, but the true pleasure in this test drive was the S60’s on-road performance. Pretty close to spectacular.

Most impressive was the tester’s ability to instantly accelerate into small holes, whether it was doing that from a standing start or blazing from 50 mph to 70 mph with a snap of the fingers. I was so impressed by these sprint maneuvers that I kept trying them out over and over, probably looking like something of a madman to my fellow motorists.

But it was just too perfect – and fun – to walk away from. This Volvo has the capability to zip around some very pricey, horsepower-heavy cars … and it does so in quiet, rock-steady fashion.

The rush is backed up by the usual blizzard of Volvo safety, comfort and convenience features. Learning some of the tricks of the audio system/display takes some time, but once mastered, it all works pretty well.

All in all, I feel like I had the $60,000 car experience in a $42,500 model. Quite the steal, I’d say.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Lots to like in 2012 motor vehicle offerings

Sacramento, California – The freshened, restyled and new motor vehicles for 2012 are starting to show up in numbers, and while no single model seems to stand out from the rest at this point, there are some eye-catchers.

The one arguably creating the most buzz is one of the smallest – the Fiat 500 (pictured).

What’s not to like? The tiny Italian is critically cute, a dedicated fuel-sipper and totally fun to drive on city streets and country roads. It will be interesting to see how Fiat sales go in this year’s final quarter.

What else out there is worthy of your attention? Here’s a rundown:

• The previously reviewed, redesigned-for-2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS500 is a four-door cruiser dripping with class and horsepower. Here’s a car that makes you want to drive more often and worry about the gasoline bill later.
• The 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 is an SUV on highway-burning steroids. If you thought an SUV was a practical vehicle for hauling family and cargo, step on the gas in this SRT8 and feel your heart race.
• The new Hyundai Veloster is a hatch with hot-rod attitude and stuffed with high-tech entertainment goodies to please both kids and adults. Can Hyundai be cool? Darn right it can!
• A super hot-looking ZL1 version of the Camaro is ready to make its debut. The horsepower output is somewhere in the 550 range. Enough said.
• The 2012 Chevrolet Impala gets styling and engine upgrades, adding some appeal to an American model that long lit up the sales charts.
• The latest version of Volkswagen’s venerable Beetle drops the “New” name and gets decidedly more macho with more-aggressive exterior styling and muscular engines. One test drive and you’ll forget that these cars once came with a standard flower vase.
• Another SRT8 mind-blower arrives with the 2012 Dodge Charger. It looks capable of walking away from a NASCAR Sprint Cup car. While you might not get the chance to try that out, the power plant lays down enough oomph to let you fantasize about the possibilities.
• The 2012 Audi A6 is a study in primo fit and finish on a four-door sedan. The optional, supercharged V-6 engine puts out 310 horses.
• Don’t forget that BMW’s 6 Series is redesigned for 2012, and these are more than minor tweaks. The cars are bigger inside and out, and more-powerful engines are part of the mix.
• The all-new 2012 Buick Verano shapes up as an affordable, feature-loaded, practical-size sedan. A 2.4-liter in-line 4 has max horsepower of around 180, but look for more robust engine offerings up the road.

That’s it? Not by a long shot. Stay tuned for more reviews of 2012 hardware. Trust me, I’m test driving as fast as I can.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Odyssey minivan is a family room on the roll

Sacramento, California – My first thought upon examining the 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite minivan: Where were you in ’92?

That’s 1992 -- a time when I had thick, black hair and a 7-year-old son who craved entertainment on road trips. He certainly did an admirable job of entertaining himself, but he would have absolutely flipped over this feature-loaded Odyssey, had it been available then.

The Odyssey, already a top-tier minivan, was reworked for 2011. My tester was a rolling family room.

Where to begin? The leather-trimmed interior, the multi-view rear-mounted cameras, the hard disk drive, the power/remote-operated sliding side doors and rear gate, the dozens of safety features (getting max federal five-star ratings for frontal and side-impact crashes), navigation system, 10-way power driver’s seat, second- and third-row sunshades, tri-zone climate control … the perks go on and on.

Then there was the DVD player to entertain the backseat passengers. You might remember the little hand-held video game-size screens that came with these early systems. Not so here: My tester had a super-wide 16.2-inch screen, with wireless headsets.

Incredible! May I have the check?

Whoa, there is a price to pay for all this -- $44,030 on the tester, admittedly the priciest of seven trim levels. But I’ve always kind of looked at a minivan as a long-term family investment, something you purchase when the kids are small, with plentiful driving vacations, soccer games and school field trips in the future.

On that level, this Odyssey excels. But wait, there’s more.

Gas mileage is actually pretty fair at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. And with nearly 250 horsepower put out by the 3.5-liter V-6, this minivan will handle hill climbs and freeway merges better than one might expect from a van. Just be sure to hit the accelerator hard when you really need it; it takes awhile for the revs to get up there.

I continue to like the Odyssey’s deep cargo area at the back, a spacious storage cavern even when the third-row seats are in use (the van can be configured to hold up to eight), and there are multiple cargo-carrying configurations to take advantage of as needed. If you have too much stuff for this van, you’ve probably over-packed.

Handling, by the way, is very much midsize sedan-like.

Minivans have taken hits for being too old-school, but if you’re current lifestyle screams for this vehicle segment, the Odyssey should be on your test-drive list.

Ah, if they’d only had this baby when I was a young father.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mercedes CLS550 reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the redesigned-for-2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 sedan appears in the latest, September 2011, 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.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chrysler's 200 is a player in crowded segment

This review originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California -- mg

Sacramento, California -- Chrysler has been dealing with an identity problem for some time now.

Here’s the hard-luck list: Too many trucks and SUVs. Not enough quality, affordable passenger car offerings. The lingering bad taste of accepting a government bailout. And despite those gritty TV commercials you’ve been seeing about Chrysler’s hard roots as an American car company, Fiat is now the automaker’s majority owner.

It’s a lot of baggage to carry. But the load is a little lighter thanks to the new 2011 Chrysler 200 midsize sedan.

The 200 can be had as a pricier droptop, but my tester was the reasonable (starting price of $21,245) Touring sedan. Ordinarily this model gets a 2.4-liter in-line 4 with nearly 175 ponies. However, my tester had the beefier 3.6-liter V-6 with 283 horsepower. That power plant was one of the extras that swelled the bottom line on my car to $24,770.

First things first: This 200 is attractive, with a clean and sexy exterior look. Fit and finish from the glittering, flush headlights to the trunklid are top-notch. My tester was Batmobile black, and I was surprised by the number of folks who walked up to me and wanted to know about that beauty I was driving.

The interior look is likewise clean and attractive, with leather appointments and a center-mounted dash clock that looks like something you’d expect to see in a top-tier Lexus. I know the clock was made to look more valuable than it actually is, but hey, whoever did that job did a good one.

Safety features are plentiful to the point of making this car a deal-maker in the midsize sedan segment.

Chrysler appeared to save money on the center stack/dash, with is very Spartan and very basic. You can hear tunes and control your climate. Beyond that, not much happening.

I was somewhat disappointed that the V-6 did not produce more oomph. I really had to sink my foot into the accelerator to get top-end performance, and it took a little while for the revs to get up there. The V-6 also gets so-so mileage ratings of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

Cabin quietness, however, was pretty impressive.

So, the good news in all this is that Chrysler, no matter who’s running the store, has a midsize sedan offering that’s truly competitive. And that’s saying something at a time when the competition for American customers in the segment is ferocious.

I’m not sure the 200 has enough to lure the entrenched Honda, Toyota, Ford and GM crowd of midsize buyers, but it’s certainly in the conversation now. That in itself is a good thing for too-long-beleaguered Chrysler.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Enthusiast's plea: Shut up and race!

Sacramento, California – I spent the past weekend watching auto racing live and on television, and I was struck again by an ugly pattern.

Not only did I hear more whining from drivers in various racing series, the TV crews covering the events continued to do their part to ramp up the rudeness and rancor.

Wow, this is getting old!

And so am I, but I actually do remember a time when on-track missteps – real or imagined – were sorted out one way or another behind the garages. No bellyaching into the camera, no sucker punches, no hair grabbing.

Now, it seems that most drivers (and crew members) are trained in the art of the 30-second sound bite, trashing a fellow driver who did something stupid, got in the way or was simply caught up in a racing crash.

But it’s not enough to let the video evidence speak for itself. Drivers lash out at fellow drivers with seemingly relentless insults, and gestures. So-and-so was an idiot. So-and-so is always doing something stupid. So-and-so is always running his mouth.

As for that last one, do you notice how often a driver complaining about another driver running his mouth is always running his mouth? Even the spotters get in on the sound bites, pronouncing instant judgment over an open radio.

TV acts as an enabler. The pre-race shows constantly ramp up the rancor from the previous race, even though that event might have occurred two weeks back. Instead of talking about the most newsworthy facts leading up to the day’s events, half the pre-race show time is spent replaying the mouth-running footage of the past, playing up the spicy language.

It doesn’t end there. It’s ramped up even more during live interviews where the feuding parties, with interviewers almost gleefully asking, “Did you hear what he said now?”

It’s starting to resemble wrestling “entertainment.” I half expect another driver to run into a live interview and hit the driver being interviewed over the head with a folding chair.

Even worse, crashed-out drivers mouth off even when video footage shows they were clearly at fault. Yeah, this is a brutal sport. Drivers compete hard. Few roll over and get out of the way. Crashes and contact happen.

Enough already. I’ve been watching the sport long enough to know when somebody screwed up. I don’t need relentless alibis and prolonged pumping of old news.

Do me a favor: Shut up and race.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Auto upgrade: 2012 Acura TL is a step up

Sacramento, California – Acura’s handsome sports sedan, the TL, gets a new look for 2012, and the changes front and back are special enough to give owners of older TLs a touch of envy.

This freshened TL just looks better, with sweetly sharp angles seemingly borrowed from a Stealth fighter’s spec chart. My tester, the 2012 TL SH with all-wheel drive and an “Advance Package” of perks, is the most expensive of seven trim levels. My car with no listed extra-cost extras and an $860 destination charge came in at $45,945.

That’s right. Sporty luxury does not come cheap these days.

For the record, the tester was positively stuffed with tech goodies (a navigation system, rearview camera, an over-the-top Surround Sound audio system and a hard disk drive to name just a few) and the “Advance Package” consisted of a blind spot information system (the better to avoid those nasty sideways collisions), ventilated front seats, 19-inch alloy wheels and all-season tires.

Inside, the TL SH-AWD was laced with leather and opulence. Interior quietness on the road was exceptional. I’d have preferred a little more information out of the small satellite radio readout when also using the navigation system, but hey, it’s probably best that I do less reading and more paying attention to the road when I’m driving.

My TL was equipped with a drive-by-wire throttle system and a six-speed automatic transmission. The power source was a 3.7-liter VTEC V-6 with 305 horsepower. Given all that, I expected a fair amount of neck-snapping power when I nailed the gas. But I didn’t get that.

Don’t get me wrong; the Acura moved out smartly when asked. And it ate up every road challenge I threw at it. But power is dished out comparatively smoothly and evenly, not with the brute force you expect from a vehicle with a 300-pony V-6.

Fuel mileage was an OK 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

I wanted to offer special kudos to the producers of the four-wheel disc brakes. They were impressive without being jarring. I was surprised several times how quickly the brakes settled down the tester in nasty stop-and-go freeway traffic, but I was never slammed into the seat belts. Nice, controlled stopping power. Very much race car-like.

Acura has taken heat over the years for lacking a signature car, but I’d have to say this current TL sedan steps right up as a memorable ride with enduring qualities. Would I recommend it to my high-earning friends? In a heartbeat.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Elantra sedan another able Hyundai entry

Sacramento, California – Hyundai’s evolvement from a maker of cheap cars to a producer of highly-sought, quality vehicles remains one of the remarkable auto stories of the past generation, in my view.

Hyundai keeps grinding out affordable rides, packed with perks and performance for which others pay many thousands more at other lots.

The 2011 Elantra GLS sedan only enhanced my feel-good vibe about the South Korean automaker.

Reworked for the 2011 model year, the Elantra impresses right away with a pleasing, yet understated aerodynamic look. And while the back end of the car is bobbed to a certain degree, opening the trunk reveals a deeply recessed space capable of holding a generous amount of cargo.

The starting price on my tester was an easy-to-take $17,080, swelled up to near $20,000, mostly with the addition of a navigation package.

More good news on the sticker: 29 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. There are some numbers to feel good about at the present time.

The happy tour of the sticker is enhanced even more with the lengthy list of safety features and the super-generous lineup of warranties.

The Korean import offers a mixed bag of impressions on the fly.

The 1.8-liter in-line 4 with 148 horsepower has enough to get you out of harm’s way coming down the highway merge ramp, but man, smashing the gas produces a serious scream from the engine. That scream seems somewhat futile on steep hill climbs, during which time the Elantra sedan is unquestionably straining to get it done.

Yet it is an agile urban dweller. An easy feel on the steering wheel allows the car to slalom through traffic, bikes and sleepwalking crosswalk invaders. It stops on a dime.

Simply put: I liked the car better in the city than I did on the open road, although it appears that it will run flawlessly – with few gas station visits in between – on a long, flat highway.

I never quite figured out the Elantra’s “eco” mode, and frankly, I’m not sure it made any difference.

Internal amenities were nicely arranged, comfortable and easy to use, although I’m not sure I’d force a full-size adult to ride in the middle of the backseat area.

All in all, a solid effort yet again from Hyundai. This Elantra is affordable, well-backed transportation that will likely keep its owners happy for many years.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Chrysler 200 sedan reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2011 Chrysler 200 Touring sedan appears in the latest, August 2011, 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.

Camaro Convertible gives you all you desire

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

Sacramento, California -- Some say you haven’t really driven a Chevrolet Camaro until you’ve driven the convertible version.

Hogwash! You take your horsepower and pony car panache where you can get it these days, and I had no reservations about putting the 2011 Camaro Convertible 1LT through its paces, having tested the 2LT coupe version not all that long ago.

The difference: The convertible is breezier with the top down.

I’m serious. Otherwise, both Camaros give you the usual mix of gut-satisfying performance/handling, sexy styling and impressive interior amenities. I think the best praise for the latest generation of the Camaro is that, even after being on the market for some time now, people still walk up and exclaim, “Hey, that’s a Camaro!”

Yes it is, and a frisky one at that.

All Camaro LT models come with a 3.6-liter V-6 putting out 312 horsepower, yet gas mileage is a fairly respectable 17 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. Accelerations off the line are brisk affairs, pressing you into the seat and allowing you to enjoy a satisfying growl from the power plant.

It’s a pretty good blast for a starting price just south of $30,000.

The suspension is appropriately stiff, but not overly so, for a convertible, and you feel totally secure wheeling this droptop around in heavy traffic. Careful sculpting directs headwinds mostly around the driver, and getting the top down does not require an engineering degree.

The layout of interior controls is easy to see and use, and wind buffeting with the top down is slight enough to enable you to hear the radio without dialing up the volume level to eardrum-bursting levels. All in all, this car looks and feels good cruising the boulevard, and you have the spirit-boosting knowledge that you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy this car new.

True, this is not the SS version of the Camaro Convertible. That hardware with a 6.2-liter, 426-horsepower V-8 is going to run you closer to $40,000. During my recent visit to the centennial Indianapolis 500, I got within sweating distance of the special-edition Camaro SS Convertible that would pace the race. No dice getting behind the wheel. A.J. Foyt already had the ride locked up.

No big deal, you can get some of the thrill Foyt felt on Indy 500 race day with the 1LT droptop. It has enough in it to propel your fantasies.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cheers! Venza surprises on Wine Country trip

Sacramento, California - I looked at a 2011 Toyota Venza in a showroom last fall, and I must admit that I was not impressed.

Touted as a crossover between a sport-utility vehicle and a sport sedan, I thought it looked more like a wagon with limited cargo-carrying capacity.

What was that they said about first impressions?

Turns out I liked the Venza a lot when I recently had the opportunity to pilot it in a unique environment - California's Wine Country. In that world - where I was a relative peasant among homes, cars and possessions well beyond my pay grade - the Venza was a welcome and comforting performer.

It helped that the delivered vehicle was a gorgeous Tropical Sea Metallic - think soft ocean blue -- that still managed to look stunning parked among the ocean of Mercedes, Porsches, Acuras and Bentleys in the winery lots.

My tester was the front-drive V-6 starting at $28,300, but that doesn't begin to tell the tale. This Venza had more add-ons that a congressional highway bill, bringing the bottom line to a head-turning $37,024. I'd say it was the fanciest "affordable" Toyota I've ever driven.

Here I was driving a Venza with mahogany-style inlay, high-intensity lights with automatic high-beam on/off control, leather-trimmed seats, power moonroof, panoramic glass roof at the back end, backup camera and power lumbar supports to name just a few.

Not that I minded the extra perks.

But honestly, the most impressive points on the Venza were how it drove and what it carried.

The 268-horsepower V-6 was an enthusiastic power plant, capable of doing the quick pass of a poke and gliding up those sometimes-steep driveways one finds in the Wine Country. And yet the vehicle was nimble enough to maneuver through tight town streets and cramped parking lots.

I had no trouble whatsoever putting this car through its paces in areas where I was not an everyday visitor. That might be the ultimate compliment for a car: It makes you feel secure on relatively unknown roadways.

The Venza'a cargo-carrying configurations are much, much healthier than I originally thought. And the automatic power liftgate on the rear of the tester made loading a snap. Here's a vehicle you want to take on vacation.

With the V-6, fuel mileage ratings weren't so hot at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. No surprise there.

But virtually everything else on the Venza did surprise me … in a pleasant way.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

BMW's extras are nice; ride is even nicer

Sacramento, California – BMW introduced its X3 in 2004, calling it a Sports Activity Vehicle, sort of a luxo sport-ute that could smash through an off-road landscape if you really felt like damaging your somewhat pricey ride.

Most of us opted to simply drive the luxury liner and enjoy the perks. A reworked version for 2011 simply reinforces those urges.

My tester was the pricier of the two trim levels – a 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i (complicated label, no?) with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $41,050. And hey, that isn’t so bad for a five-passenger, four-door SUV from BMW.

Alas, a full reading of the sticker included enough extras to load into the back of the thing. Premium and technology goodies included a panoramic moonroof, lumbar support, rear-view camera, park-distance control system and a navigation system, to name just a few.

That brought the bottom line to $53,015. Sigh!

I asked myself if I could live without the extras. And the quick answer was “yes.” But knowing BMW’s market niche, I’m guessing that most devotees absolutely want everything this xDrive35i was packing. And let’s face it, one person’s $53 K is another person’s life savings. BMW fans want the varsity package.

And for a week, yes, I was spoiled in opulent surroundings and excellent engineering. Yet it was the basic package that impressed me most.

The tester’s road manners were extraordinary – smooth, light, agile and powerful when asked. The engine is a 3-liter in-line 6 turbo with 300 horses. That’s more than enough juice to get the SUV down the road and up the hills in a hurry. Yet even at full song, interior cabin noise is slight.

Solid? You bet.

Performance, control and stability features are top-notch. Ditto the extensive safety systems. The AWD system functions with sweet precision.

Interior controls are plentiful and take some time to learn. I’m still trying to figure out BMW’s out-of-the-ordinary turn-signal system, but I think I just have a blind spot on this particular engineering marvel.

Oh, it looks good too. A clean aerodynamic look has just enough sharpness at the edges to make this BMW a sporty-looking family outing wagon. This X3 also is bigger than its ancestor.

Gas mileage is, well, not so bad if you don’t blink spending cash for BMWs – 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

Overall, this is what you expect from a second-generation model – something better than the first generation. A nice effort. If you have the dough and need a luxury-level SUV, it should be on your test-drive list.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Camaro droptop reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible 1LT appears in the latest, July 2011, 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.

HOLY BLEEP! This Jag sedan is a blast

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

Sacramento, California -- The 2011 Jaguar XJL Supercharged sedan is what I call a HOLY BLEEP! vehicle.

That’s because when people see it, they exclaim HOLY BLEEP!

And bleep well they should. This sedan within the beefed up, six-trim-level 2011 XJ lineup really is more than a car. Calling it a car sells it short, like calling Lady Gaga just another dressy girl.

This Jag is artwork on a grand scale, with a big scoop of mind-blowing performance characteristics that seem derived from advanced alien technology.

On first glance, it looks long enough and wide enough to be a limo. The elegant appearance is gloriously enhanced by a simple prancing cat in chrome on the back of the trunklid. I love that. Simply said: This is a big Jag. Say no more.

It’s on the roll that you start to edge into HOLY BLEEP! territory.

With the 5-liter, supercharged, 470-horsepower V-8 engine handling the propulsion chores, you are transported to another planet, somewhere in the Blew By You galaxy. Just the smallest pressure on the accelerator brings instant zip, and yet it is so smooth that you don’t quite get the full effect until you see surrounding cars get oh-so-small in your mirrors.

Yet the XJL cabin is so quiet that you get virtually no sound on blast-offs, and that actually is a shame, because you really expect an audio rip when the car is hitting 80 mph at one-fourth throttle. This kind of oomph and silky handling change your whole attitude.

It was so easy to sail into tight spots I normally wouldn’t think of filling in mere mortal machinery. In my head, I’m screaming at a trailing car: “Like you had even a PRAYER of slamming the door on me!”

This kind of mood-altering machismo is likely to produce speeding tickets in bunches, so it’s probably good that I had the XJL for only a week. But what a rush it was.

The interior is a Four Seasons Hotel experience, dripping with fine woods and exquisitely sculpted controls. Too bad the gear-shifting mechanism is a dial – yes, I’m serious – because even with the six-speed automatic, you feel the urge to ram a floor shifter into the pegs.

What’s not to like? Well, there’s 15/21 mpg with premium juice and a starting price of $90,700. Other than that, it is everyone’s dream.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Scion tC coupe takes a step up for 2011

Sacramento, California – I’ve liked the Scion tC two-door sports coupe from the beginning, in 2004, and there’s more to like in 2011.

The spunky little car equipped with some serious youth-oriented shout-outs has been redesigned to look more sporty on the front and back ends, and performance is more robust, thanks to a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing.

The power plant puts out a max 180 horses, and that does the job nicely for all occasions in a car that is light and nimble.

My tester with a six-speed automatic transmission had a bottom-line price of $19,995, including a $720 processing and handling fee. Absolutely no extras on the car.

Even so, my tC was liberally sprinkled with nice standard features, including the usual powered convenience devices and an ear-blasting eight-speaker sound system from Pioneer.

One important note: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded the 2011 tC a top overall safety rating of five stars. No surprise there. The fact that this small coupe has eight airbags gives you an idea of how much safety consideration went into the design.

Fuel mileage is a nice 23 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway, and it takes the more-affordable 87-octane.

The car is fun to drive and easy to drive.

The tC sprints briskly off the line, and the light steering makes it a top performer in dicey downtown/suburban traffic. It handles freeway duties with ease, no matter if the road is flat, twisty or hilly. An upgraded suspension system was evident – less sway and a lot less road bumping compared with my previous experiences in past tC coupes.

I would not advise trying to jam three people into the car’s back seat area. Cruel and unusual, that. Two max would be my advice, and I believe smaller adults will experience more riding comfort.

I confess that I had trouble figuring out the controls on the sound system, but this appears to be an attack of tech-challenge fever on my part. The suggested cure is more time with an owner’s manual.

The 2011 tC has been getting some very positive reviews from colleagues, who see the latest version as a vast improvement over the previous generation. Frankly, I’m not sure how much you can improve an affordable, already solid two-seater. For me, the tC is simply a better car than it was before.

Folks looking for affordable, basic transportation will like it, given that it’s a capable roadway performer with plentiful standard goodies. What’s not to like?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Captain Contradiction wins at Infineon

Sonoma, California – Call him Captain Contradiction.

Kurt Busch that is.

You can also call him a dominating winner after he wheeled his bright-yellow, Pennzoil, No. 22 Dodge to victory in today's Toyota/Save Mart 350 on the Infineon Raceway road course.

In Victory Lane, Busch told us the obvious, that he had an "unbelievable set-up" on his car, which left the competition behind after every restart. On long runs, some cars came within a second of Busch, but he appeared to be toying with them.

At the end of the day, Busch's car looked pretty much like it did when it rolled to the starting line on a pleasant, sunny day in the Wine Country. Competitor cars looked like wounded warriors.

Busch capped off a remarkable month that also saw him post three consecutive pole positions. And he erased some of the ill will that has been a hallmark of his past.

Contradictions? Paradox? Busch knows them well.

He can be the most charming interview on the circuit, with kind, thoughtful comments. When his quick temper takes over, he can look as nasty as a rotting cactus.

Busch has said some of the most respectful things that can be said of his fellow drivers. Other times, he raged at an alleged offender in the garage area like a man missing his senses.

More of the same this year. During a dreadful race at Richmond, Virginia, Busch was overheard ripping Team Penske on the car radio. Not a good move to take The Godfather of racing team owners to task during a race.

But in recent weeks, as things were going good, Busch had nothing but praise for the Penske crew and organization.

Raging genius? Loose cannon? For my money, a little of both.

For all the monster publicity younger brother Kyle Busch receives, remember that brother Kurt has something Kyle does not -- namely a Sprint Cup season championship.

Yeah, this Kurt Busch guy is pretty talented. And right now, he's on a roll.

Enjoy that bottle of Napa Valley merlot tonight Kurt.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Winds of change blowing through NASCAR?

Sonoma, California – Change is in the air in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. Can you feel it?

I can. Or maybe it’s just me.

When NASCAR’s top series came to Infineon Raceway here at this time last year, I had the distinct feeling that Jimmie Johnson was on his way to a record-shattering fifth straight series championship. Those feelings were confirmed just before turkey was served at our house last Thanksgiving Day.

And while JJ title No. 6 certainly is in reach as Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 approaches, I’m seeing cracks in the Car 48 team’s armor this time around.

Johnson stole one at Talladega in the springtime, and he’s in a solid No. 4 position in the current Chase points standings. He’ll be among those racing for the big prize come fall.

But frankly, Johnson’s team has looked far from razor-sharp this year. A litany of errors in 2011 includes on-track miscues, bad calls in the pits, sloppy work by the pit crew and late-race engine failure. Granted, the Car 48 team has been functioning on such a high level for so long that some of these mishaps – common to all teams – get blown out of proportion.

But they’re undeniably there. It’s hard to ignore them.

My preseason pick to dethrone Johnson, Carl Edwards, has been humming along in the points lead, but he too has stubbed his toe along the way. Kevin Harvick is right there, as is Kyle Busch. And despite the constant hasn’t-won-a-race-since-forever count the media keeps running on Dale Earnhardt Jr., he is likewise in great shape in the points with the summer racing venues coming up.

At this rate, the season-concluding “playoffs” among the top drivers promise to be quite a show. And yes, Johnson could still win it all yet again. He has been counted out before – last year, for example – but he has managed to rally when it counts most … aka trophy-hoisting time.

Still, my gut says Edwards. He seems to have the package this year. Confidence is definitely not lacking. And he drivers the mix of remaining tracks with high skill. That’s a pretty strong hand when all the chips are in the center of the table.

Sunday’s race here on the permanent road course could play a major role. The twisting turns of Infineon have a way of shuttling top drivers to the back and cutting down once-sizable points leads. Truth be told, I’m guessing that most Sprint Cup drivers have a simple goal when the green flag starts tomorrow’s race: Just survive baby!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lexus hybrid requires pre-purchase homework

Sacramento, California – The new-for-2011 Lexus CT 200h is a mass of contradictions.

The new hybrid offering has a decidedly sporty Euro-look that young motorists should find very appealing. At the same time, the CT 200h has the dreaded “hatchback” label, which supporters will simply convert to “five-passenger” wagon in their minds.

The propulsion system is anchored on the gas side by a nicely tuned, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing. With the electric drive motor doing its part, the front-drive CT 200h moves smoothly through street and highway traffic, with an electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission handling the shift chores.

But my Premium version tester – starting price $30,900, with another $4,000 in goodies added on – required serious pressure on the gas pedal to get the CT 200h up to high speed. You really have to put your foot DEEP into the well to get the maximum experience.

Not that all buyers will want the maximum experience. Fuel mileage is a big consideration, and the CT 200h is rated at 43 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway.

That’s very nice, but at the same time, I wonder how many buyers will crave a CT 200h that’s essentially a bump up in class compared with Toyota’s Prius. True, some people just want a Lexus with plentiful perks, as opposed to a Toyota. So, maybe that’s enough.

It’s hard to say. Obviously, I’m conflicted.

Let’s start with the things I like.

Safety features are off the charts. There are enough stability control systems on the CT 200h to fill a high-luxury Lexus, and the airbag/emergency/enhanced structural systems are top-notch. No wonder the CT 200h won a “Top Safety Pick” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Totally deserved.

The number of standard luxury, comfort and convenience features certainly supports the Lexus label. Leather trim, power everything, moonroof and heated seats are part of an extensive package. Cool-looking dashboard lighting and colorful illuminations make you feel hip … even if you’re not.

I can picture myself running around town in this car. Likewise, I can picture my wife and grown son enjoying it locally.

As a long trip vehicle, however, I’m not so sure. Three folks in the back are going to be cramped. And unless the highway is clear of cars and allowing for cruise control, I’m pretty sure my right foot would get pretty sore after a day of mashing the accelerator to keep up with the surrounding high-speed traffic.

So, yeah, this is a homework car. It might work perfectly for your commute and lifestyle. Others might be inclined to pass it up. So, study up before heading to the dealer lot.

Friday, June 17, 2011

2011 VW Jetta is nice at a bargain price

Sacramento, California – I have to hand it to the marketing folks at Volkswagen: They hit the mark spot-on with the 2011 Jetta campaign.

The venerable VW model underwent a bumper-to-bumper redesign for the 2011 model year, and the good Volks running the automaker’s PR machine touted the ridiculously low starting price of around $15,000 for the base version.

For that, you get a bigger, Euro-styled, dependable four-door ride getting nice fuel numbers of 24 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

Keeping in mind that there are ELEVEN trim levels of the Jetta, my SE version of the car was still a bargain at around $20,000, which includes the nearly $800 destination charge. There are certain things you expect from a discount-priced car with a high profile name, and we’ll get to those in a minute.

There are also some surprises. And by far the biggest surprise was the performance of the 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower, in-line 5 engine. It performed waaaayyyy beyond what I expected of it, especially given the Jetta’s front-wheel-drive configuration.

Acceleration off the line was decidedly robust, and power kept coming on aggressively even when the Jetta was rolling along in the higher revs. I could have sworn I had an extra 25 horses more than advertised as I wheeled the Jetta SE through dicey freeway traffic and up steep inclines.

Handling and steering were excellent as the Jetta casually straightened out portions of twisty roadways and zipped in and out of downtown rush-hour traffic. Interior comfort for five folks was good. Seats were comfortable. Trunk space was pretty fair.

For the price, I expected cutbacks somewhere. Seems like they made those in the dashboard, which was very sparse for a family sedan. The basic comfort/convenience features are inside to be sure, but there was nothing extra to play with. The center stack of controls was pretty much what I’d expect of a fleet car.

Is that a sin? No, especially if you’re marketing the Jetta as an affordable family car getting some not-so-bad gas mileage. Honda and Toyota have been playing that game for years. The Jetta is now a comparatively stylish player in the segment.

Young families or older families looking for a reliable car for their young offspring should include the Jetta on their must-test-drive lists.

Fast-moving Jag reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2011 Jaguar XJL Supercharged sedan appears in the latest, June 2011, 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.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Think Smart: Pay attention in this tiny ride

Sacramento, California – I want to say up front that I continue to be awed by the sheer genius of the Smart car line of two-seaters.

Really! The engineering that went into making these tiny cars is nothing short of remarkable. You can zip them along city streets and flog them down the freeway at 70 miles an hour, and still have all the comforts of a typical car at your fingertips.

Genius, I tell you!

But the Smart fortwo – my tester technically was a $19,620 2011 smart fortwo passion cabriolet, a maddening series of lower-case names seemingly paying tribute to the little car – remains very much a niche car. And if you’ve been thinking of buying one in these times of $4 a gallon of gas, be forewarned.

You really need to pay attention when you’re driving this car.

The tester was a cloth-topped car. The top slid open and closed at the push of a button. Very cool. But note that a hard-topped Smart fortwo lets in a lot of noise. The cabriolet version nearly doubles that.

On the expressway, my tester sounded like it was in a wind tunnel. And every 18-wheel truck in the vicinity sounded like it was coming into the cockpit for a visit. Not only that, I had to grip the steering wheel firmly to keep the car straight in high crosswinds.

OK, that’s not the Smart car’s fault. A car this small is going to get whipped around in the wind. It’s just something you need to be aware of if you’re regularly dicing in rush-hour traffic on a busy urban freeway system.

It’s my guess that a lot of people have pondered buying a Smart vehicle – 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 mpg on the highway are deliciously alluring – but walked away when they envisioned wheeling the vehicle around in heavy freeway traffic. It’s natural to ask sometimes: I wonder if the driver in that big commercial truck CAN EVEN SEE ME next to him?

Yup, that’s a consideration. I get it.

Happily, the 1-liter, 3-cylinder, 70-horsepower engine moves the car along nicely … once you get the revs up. Getting up there is interesting with an automatic gearbox. You’re pushed forward in your seat on the transition between Gears 1 and 2, and then again on the trip from Gears 2 to 3. Once you’re there, the car settles down and performs well.

Cargo space? If you have to ask, you don’t get it.

Get this: The Smart fortwo is a near-perfect, fuel-saving, parking-wonder of a car in a contained urban setting. For longer commutes and long road trips, you’re stretching the reason for its existence. Yet if you want a Smart car for all seasons and uses, that’s no crime.

Just make sure you pay attention.

Friday, June 3, 2011

2011 Dodge Avenger applies the Heat

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

Sacramento, California -- Chrysler juiced up the Dodge Avenger sedan in 2009, and accompanying that move, it proceeded to fall into the depths of economic hell.

Perhaps that explains why you need a scorecard to catch up with the hottest-performing Avenger, produced by a recently rejuvenated Chrysler. Happily, I’ve taken a spin in both the 2010 Avenger R/T and the 2011 Avenger Heat.

Confused? Relax, I’ll explain.

For the 2010 model year, the top-performing Avenger was indeed called an R/T, a rear wing-equipped, most-capable car that could be had with a 3.5-liter V-6 putting out some 235 horses. The interior was predictably Chrysler-simple, and quiet enough. You see this car for sale with low mileage on a used-car site, you would not be called a dope for snapping it up.

But the 2011 Heat – the name for the top-line of four trim levels of 2011 Avengers – is a serious upgrade. And it’s a relative bargain starting at $23,745. The power plant has been boosted to a 3.6-liter machine blasting out 283 horses. Doesn’t take a genius why the Dodge boys opted for the word “Heat” to describe this particular Avenger.

The engine with variable valve timing is a road-tamer of serious stature. The engine’s growl is not transmitted to the cockpit, but the power source is muscular enough to overmatch the suspension on hard, high-speed corners. Handle with care, as this small-looking sedan will slide on you if you overdrive it on twisty mountain roads.

On the flatlands, it’s a blast, outrunning much of what is out there in midsize form.

The interior remains a study in basic simplicity, and the seats are comfortable in the front. Adult, rear-seat occupants will suffer if the front seat riders don’t show some courtesy and move their chairs forward just a bit.

Gas mileage is a pretty good 19 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. There are blind spots that the mirrors can’t pick up on both sides of the car, so I had to keep my head on a swivel at high speeds in freeway traffic.

The Avenger has taken some shots with the more-famous Dodge Challenger and Charger models available for sale, and some auto-reviewing snobs have suggested avoiding the Avenger in favor of an upcoming sedan offering from Fiat.

I can’t really buy into that. The 2011 Dodge Avenger Heat is a nice-priced sedan that can give you a heart-racing thrill now and again. What more do you want?