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?