Wednesday, March 30, 2011

F1 changes don't slow runaway race winner

Sacramento, California – The new Formula One racing season began just as it ended last year – German Sebastian Vettel ran away and hid from everybody.

Last weekend’s romp was in the Australian Grand Prix. As in most F1 races, the winner at the first corner on the first lap ran away with the race. Nothing new there.

Something else reminded me of last year: my high level of confusion.

The new F1 rules and equipment kept me guessing throughout the Australian race. I had plenty of time to ponder since the race winner was never in doubt.

So, Pirelli comes in with new tires, and right away I’m told that they might not hold up too well, regardless of compound. In fact, the tires’ ability to last is so in question that it’s touted as a competition-boosting factor.

The tires could crumble, so we could have four or five pit stops to mix things up … not counting the times the tires might fail on course. Wow, fragile tires leading to more exciting competition. Not sure I’ve heard that one before.

Then, the kinetic energy-storing, power-boosting KERS system made its return. But it didn’t seem to make too much difference for anybody. Vettel’s Red Bull crew said after the race that it didn’t need KERS to run away with the race.

And then, most mystifying of all, the F1 cars showed off their movable rear wings. The adjustable rear wing could be altered with the push of a button from inside the cockpit. The button push lowers a wing flap that foster more airflow and allegedly increases straight-line speed.

Well, I understand that in theory. But as it was described during the race, that move could only be executed by a trailing car entering a passing zone, and the trailer had to be within one second of the car in front of him for it to work.

Really? Sort of takes the whole defending your position thing out of the equation, doesn’t it? And heaven help the lead car that blocks a trailing car, as F1 tends to come down on those people hard … sometimes … depending on the offending driver.

Don’t get me wrong, I respect the global racing series and the remarkable technology that goes into it. But the continuing blizzard of Byzantine rule changes spoils the bottom-line racing aspect for me. I’m all for anything that inspires close, competitive racing at the front, but I certainly didn’t see that in Australia.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Simply said, Audi A4 is a fine luxury ride

Sacramento, California – The luxury sedan need not be complicated, or pricey.

That’s why I had such a pleasant weeklong experience in the 2011 Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro Tiptronic.

Yeah, I liked the car quicker than I could say the name.

Like other Audi offerings, this one has the sculpted, gaping mouth of a grille that seems poised to devour everything in its path. A smooth aerodynamic curve over the top ends with an abrupt, but not unattractive, slope at the back end.

I had fun triggering the trunk from the key fob. The trunk instantly flips all the way open, instead of slowly yawning or letting you do the lifting. A small thing, but nice.

The tester had a starting price of $34,140, a fine bargain with a pretty extensive standard features list. Alas, my car was dressed up with a premium navigation system, a blast-off-the-map sound system and fancy 18-inch all-season tires. Those extras took the bottom line to $42,745. Frankly, I could have lived happily with just the nav system.

I never did figure out how to program mixed bands of radio stations into the digital system, which was a minor annoyance and a primary result of me periodically being a technology klutz. Other than that, interior controls were nicely spaced and easy to use.

The interior was supremely quiet and comfortable, and the leather seats had plenty of options for comfort and firmness. A standard glass sunroof welcomed the rays, or in my case, it offered a close-up view of the relentless rainstorms that have been pelting California of late. I’m sure it’s a much sunnier view in, say, July.

On-road performance was excellent. The A4 hugged the road even when I challenged the tires to squeal on high-speed corners and making aggressive starts. The turbo 4 engine responded instantly. No turbo lag here.

The eight-speed Tiptronic transmission operated with seamless precision. I have to wonder how high the curve is going to go. Can 10 speeds be far behind? For now, eight is enough.

Backseat space is tight when two normal adults have their front seats adjusted for comfort.

Good news on the gas front: Fuel mileage ratings are 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. That’s not shabby for a turbo-boosted power plant.

Bad news: It takes premium, generally going for the price of caviar right now.

The car also has a max five-star rollover safety rating.

All in all, this A4 is an uncomplicated gem.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Titanium's flash softens previous criticism

Sacramento, California – Several years back, I did a review on the Ford Flex that was negative enough to inspire some Ford Motor Co. folks to call me and express their profound displeasure.

Apparently, the statute of limitations ran out and I recently was allowed to review a 2011 Ford Flex, but this was a Flex of a different color. Or multiple colors as it turned out.

The tested 2011 Ford Flex Titanium with front-wheel drive was a prime, head-turning example of the Titanium models added to the Flex lineup. It literally begged for attention with a sparkling coat of Red Candy Metallic paint with black Alcantara inserts.

A Camaro driver rolled up to me and wanted to know if the Flex came that way from the factory, or was the exterior look a product of my customizing prowess. Obviously, he was totally unacquainted with my body shop incompetence, but still, it made the point.

This Flex Titanium stands out in the crowd.

I had the opportunity to take some volunteers for a ride in the seven-passenger vehicle, and they loved it. Roomy, comfortable and smooth on the roll, they gushed.

I agreed. Plus the interior is elegantly laid out, with a minimum of large, easy-to-reach controls. Tail-section cargo-carrying capacity is enormous, and my old bones were saved on the tester by a responsive automatic tailgate open/close device.

Even Motor Trend magazine loves the Flex, calling it “the best box you can buy.”

Alas, the Flex – even in Titanium trim – gives me pause.

For starters, it’s pricey. The tester weighed in at a hefty $43,505 after about $3,000 in extras were added on to the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

Gas mileage is a wallet-draining 17 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway.

The standard 3.5-liter V-6 with 262 horsepower struggles to meet the demands of freeway on-ramp merges and hill country climbs. In fairness, I did not have the available 3.5-liter EcoBoost turbocharged engine that puts out 355 horsepower. That much oomph probably provides more than enough for all driving chores.

Is the Flex a nice match for an active family that makes a lot of road trips carrying a bunch of cargo? Yes.

Is the Flex a good match for a household looking to downsize its primary vehicle and gasoline bills? No.

Is the Flex growing on me? Well, maybe a little bit.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake could shake U.S. auto industry

Sacramento, California -- My usual weekly auto review seems entirely trivial, given the sledgehammer events occurring today in Japan.

And while we might feel safe and secure in our homes, there's a good chance the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan will reverberate throughout the U.S. auto industry in the immediate future.

Where to start? Well consider:

Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s biggest automaker, said today that it had shut down four of its subsidiary plants in Japan.

Honda Motor Co. has shut three plants through Monday, and Nissan Motor Co. stopped production at five of its plants in northeastern Japan.

Suzuki Motor Corp. said Friday it was still gathering "information about any additional effects to Suzuki’s operations, including port distribution, plant and dealership operations, as well as our vendors and suppliers located in the damaged areas."

In California, America's largest auto market, there are significant reasons to closely watch Japan's problems.

Japan is the third-largest foreign market for California exports, trailing only Mexico and Canada.

California merchandise exports to Japan totaled $12.2 billion in 2010, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Not only that, the department said California imported goods totaling $40.7 billion from Japan last year. The primary imports included motor vehicles, motor vehicle parts and tires.

It's too early to tell how badly Japan's manufactuing and economic infrastructure have been damaged, but here's hoping Japan and nations around the world aggressively step in and help the ravaged nation get back on his feet.

In this global economy -- and with Japan one of the world's top auto-producing nations -- Japan's pain could quickly become ours.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Volvo luxury sedan reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2011 Volvo S60 T6 AWD luxury sedan 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.

Friday, March 4, 2011

New Honda CR-Z is a hot-looking hybrid

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

Sacramento, California -- The Honda CR-Z is all-new for 2011, and let me state from the beginning that it looks hot.

Seriously hot, with stealth fighter jet angles and a Euro appearance that looks like the love child of a Lambo and an Alfa. You really don’t mind having a hatchback with the front-drive CR-Z, because the long-length cargo cover is an essential part of the aerodynamic styling.

Oh, and it’s a hybrid. You have a 1.5-liter in-line 4 matched up with an electric motor putting out 122 horses.

Given the lightweight construction, the power plant does pretty well in normal and sport mode. If you hit the switch to select eco mode, however, you’re going to find yourself with a power shortage that won’t bode well on your next high-speed freeway merge.

And on the city streets, the hybrid engine system does not sit well. In normal mode, the car stopped at an intersection drifts off to a fuel-conserving sleep. Upon hitting the gas, the car lurches back to life with the engine doing the heavy lifting.

That’s the thing, though. It literally lurches. The transition from dormant to drive-it is not seamless. It’s downright jarring in most cases. And if you have the car in eco mode, you get even more instances of jarring. No fun that.

The interior is comfortable enough, and the center stack of controls is pretty easy to understand. Likewise, the back cargo-carrying area is impressive for a two-seater. Interior comfort/convenience features are outstanding for a small transporter of two.

But getting into the low-slung car takes some practice. For a tall guy like myself, you have to do a bit of a freefall into the cockpit, and you need to master a little head shift to avoid banging your melon on the roof-level hardware. Vision from the cockpit is very limited. It’s so limited that I had to go with double over-the-shoulder looks to make sure I was not about to ram cars in the blind spots. Again, no fun.

Fuel mileage is great – especially with the prospect of a $4-a-gallon-and-up springtime in California – at 35 miles per gallon in the city and 39 mpg on the highway.

And the price is right. My CR-Z with the navigation system and a continuously variable transmission came in at $23,210, and that’s the most expensive of six trim levels. You can get an entry-model starting at $19,200.

Overall, this is a first effort that likely will turn the heads of shoppers, but the CR-Z needs some tweaking in the months and years ahead to warm the hearts of buyers who first fell for its looks.