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 http://www.cruisinnews.com, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. 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.