Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Franchitti's win puts him among Indy's elite

Sacramento, California – You’d think that after all these years, I’d have it figured out: Qualifying doesn’t mean squat on race day.

Ask Dario Franchitti, who qualified 16th for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.  A week ago, Franchitti and his Honda engine appeared to be just short of what was going to be needed to win the great race.

The Chevy power plants were dominant in qualifications.  And yet, just one week later, there was Franchitti drinking the winner’s milk in
Victory Lane
at Indianapolis – his THIRD 500 win.  Yes, he’s now floating high in the rarefied, Hall of Fame air at the Brickyard.

Franchitti zipped past my pre-race picks, which included Penske teammates Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power; a previously confident Marco Andretti and hard-luck Tony Kanaan.  Arguably, Franchitti’s stiffest competition came from his Target teammate, Scott Dixon, who finished second.

If you’re keeping score, Franchitti and Dixon took home nearly $3.6 million of the $13.2 million in prize money.  And Franchitti won the race despite being turned around with contact in the pits early in the race – subsequently putting in a magnificent drive from the back to the front in quick order.

Last week, Franchitti and Dixon looked like they might struggle to get top-10 money.  But somehow, Honda’s engineers tweaked, pulled, twisted and labored to push their engine to not only Chevy-equaling power, but better gas mileage.

The first hint of the turnaround came in last Friday’s final practice session before the race.  Franchitti put up the fastest lap time of the session at 222.360 miles per hour, and Dixon (who qualified 15th) had the second-fastest lap at 222.274 mph.

Right about then, I thought: Holy cow, here they come again!  The two drivers who had won three of the last five Indy 500s were suddenly at the top of the deck.  And I’m guessing my feelings were shared by every other race team at the track.  Mega-successful race team owner Roger Penske must have sensed that Target racing team chief Chip Ganassi was once again holding four aces and had all his chips in the pot.

On race day, once the Target cars were in front, it sometimes seemed like they were toying with the rest of the field.  They serenely passed each other at the end of the frontstretch, taking turns leading the greatest spectacle in racing.

Oh yes, others joined in, courtesy of the new Dallara DW12 chassis that cut a big hole in the air, making drafting and frequent passing the norm.  Was that a plus?  Yes, it was, generating the most lead changes in race history.

The competition was so fierce that it makes you wonder if the new aero kits for 2013 – essentially various bodywork parts that can be added by the race teams – will add or subtract from the action.  But that’s a discussion for another day.

In the end, Franchitti and Dixon did get a challenge from Japanese driver Takuma Sato, a virtual unknown outside the world of INDYCAR racing.  Incredibly, Sato blew past Dixon and then challenged Franchitti on the final lap with a mad draft dash down the front straightaway.

From my seat on the frontstretch, I watched Sato close in on Franchitti’s tail just before entering the first turn.  I assumed he would simply stay glued there through Turn 2 and make a move on Franchitti down the backstretch, or maybe even right before the finish line.

Amazingly, Sato pushed hard get the nose of his car just under Franchitti as they whistled into Turn 1.  Mentally, I thought: No way.  Trouble.

That first turn is so tight that the inside car pressed to the white line is going to have a tough time sticking to the surface.  Alas, Sato became another victim of Turn 1’s ruthless physics.  His car would not stick, and he went spinning to the wall, ending up with a 17th-place finish.  Franchitti somehow held control and sped on to claim victory.

Some of Sato’s colleagues and racing journalists jumped on him for making his move too early, and their arguments have merit.  But frankly, Sato made a dive for racing immortality, a chance to have his face on the Borg-Warner trophy for all time, his name permanently carved into Indy’s sacred record book.

All that and it’s the Indianapolis 500.  Do you go for it when it’s within inches of your reach, never knowing if you’ll ever have such an opportunity for the remainder of your days?

You’re damn right you do.  I can’t blame Sato for making his play for everlasting glory.

But in the end, Sato could not overtake one of Indy’s masters.  Franchitti, who has won three 500s in six years, appears to have plenty of racing left in him.  A possible fourth Indy win for the popular Scotsman looms as the early storyline for 2013.  An unprecedented fifth?  Certainly within reach.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Unknowns abound in Indy 500's 96th running

Indianapolis, Indiana – I’ll be seeing my 50th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, and I cannot remember another race in that time that loomed as unpredictable as the upcoming 96th running.

New turbocharged engines, new aero chassis designs, new drivers. All will be getting a baptism by fire in, of all things, the most famous race in the world.

Anybody could win it. Maybe not anybody. But the list of potential winners approaches 20. For the Indy 500, that’s a lot.

Working out the bugs of the turbo engines has been the biggest concern. The rule lords of the 2.5-mile oval were fiddling with turbocharger boost right up to last weekend’s opening day of time trials. Plentiful technical fines were handed out last weekend, a byproduct of pressure and scurrying to play this very complex game within the regulations.

You could have a dominating car give up the ghost late in Sunday’s race. You could have overheating issues in the engine compartments. Who knows?

What is certain is that the Chevy power plants – at least under the qualifying rules – had a decided advantage over the Hondas. That might change on race day. Alas, Lotus is so far behind the curve that it’s probably best for them to simply think in terms of “wait until next year.”

Hopefully, with another year of development, more drivers and top-flight engines will be on hand for the 2013 Indy 500. What’s going to happen this time around? Here’s a guess:

Based on the historical example that no racing team does its homework like the one run by Indy legend Roger Penske, I like the chances of all three of its drivers. Pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe looks very racy, and Will Power is getting better on the ovals … a formidable skill to match his excellence on street and road courses.

But I like Penske pilot Helio Castroneves most of all. He’s my favorite to win on Sunday, and that would be his record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 triumph.

While not the fastest in qualifying, Castroneves was certainly fast enough to be in the top tier, and he insists that his car is perfectly set up for the race. He has been telling anybody who will listen that his car is so dialed in that it can be tuned to the max in virtually all conditions.

Paired with Castroneves’ Indy 500 expertise – his ability to run up front and then turn it on late in the race is perhaps the best since four-time Indy winner Rick Mears raced here – and Penske perfection, the Helio train will be hard to top on Sunday.

Much as I like Castroneves, the man I most want to win is veteran Tony Kanaan, whose hard-luck experiences in the Indy 500 are legendary. Like me, thousands of Indy Car fans are rooting to see Kanaan break through. A Kanaan win would be hugely popular.

However, I’m not sure his car has the juice to do it. Maybe the crew will find the right formula by Sunday, but last weekend, Kanaan sounded like a man who felt he was a dollar short of a jackpot. In the “Final 9” qualifying session for the pole position, he didn’t even make a formal attempt, telling the media that he felt his car had already given all it had.

I hear that, but Kanaan’s performance record in traffic at Indy has been a sight to behold. If anyone can win it on savvy, Kanaan is the man.

Dark horse pick: Marco Andretti.

Yes, he’s a sometimes baffling combination of awkward arrogance and mind-blowing talent. But this year, he just might be holding all the right cards.

He’s finished third twice here and he came within an eye-blink of winning in 2006. He truly knows this place that has heaped a ton of heartbreak and a dash of glory upon the Andretti family. Marco likes his car, which has been fast right off the transporter.

The so-called “Andretti curse” at Indy might come crashing down when the checkered flag falls on Sunday. I would not be surprised to see young Marco drinking the milk of victory to mark the occasion.

Friday, May 18, 2012

This new 'Bu likely to grab a hold of you

Sacramento, California – Hey ’Bu, what’s new with you?

A lot, it turns out.

Proving the point that it’s never too early to look ahead in the auto business, I was handed a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco 2SA to wheel around for a week.

Confused by the name? It’s OK. What you need to know is that this is the first wave of release for the eighth-generation Malibu.

The North American-specific Eco name on the models tell you that this is a mild hybrid Malibu, with an electronic assist giving a hand to the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. That equates to an advertised 25 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. Chevy says you’ll save a bundle on fuel with those numbers, and under the right driving circumstances over the long haul, that’s correct.

Fuel economy in this time of $4.25 gas in California gets my attention, of course, but the styling on this ’Bu is really something to behold.

Walking up to the car straight from the back end, you probably wouldn’t guess this is a Malibu. Yeah, the reworking is that extensive.

From the side, the car looks downright sporty. Chevy says it borrowed from the Camaro drawing board, and I can believe it looking at the results.

Am I imagining that this Malibu is somehow shorter than the previous generation? No, I’m not. An architectural change has produced a wheelbase that is 4.5 inches shorter.

So that wheelbase shrinkage probably manifests itself inside the car, right? Wrong. Chevy touts interior growth of three cubic feet from the previous generation. And yes, it feels like it. For whatever reason, I felt like I was in a full-size sedan when I was behind the wheel.

Roomy and comfortable. Yes, that’s the ticket. Controls within easy reach and easy to use. Fabulous. Room for real-size adults. Woo-hoo! Starting price of $26,845. Well, not too bad for a hybrid.

Start it up, and man, this thing is quiet. Is the electric assist doing everything? Can’t be. The engine and surrounding noise just isn’t penetrating the cockpit. Another plus.

So, let’s wind it up and … uh, wait a sec … just mash that accelerator and … uh, just one more moment. Wow, you really have to bury your foot in this thing to get decent acceleration. I’m talking darn near flat to the floorboard folks.

Yes, you’ll be saving on gas with this Eco liner, but it pays to remember that a heavy right foot will serve you well in some situations – tight freeway merges, for example.

Beyond that mushy gas pedal feel, the car drove for me like your everyday Malibu, which from me is high praise for any hybrid version of a car. And you get the pleasant understanding that virtually everything else about this new ’Bu is better than before.

This midsize nameplate has been selling well for a long, long time. That will likely continue in 2013 and beyond.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Kia Soul ! reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2012 Kia Soul ! appears in the latest, May 2012, 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.

Getting a charge out of the Chevy Volt

This review originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California – For the first time in a long, long time, I was handed the keys to a car that I really felt insecure about driving.

Resting in the parking space was a 2012 Chevrolet Volt.

I’d already seen numerous Volts and was actually in on the ground-floor, super-secret press briefings General Motors held before the Volt was revealed to the world. I’d even driven the Volt around a couple blocks of downtown Los Angeles.

But now I was getting a Volt for a week. It was mine to drive. Mine not to scratch, or worse. Mine to recharge via a standard outlet in my home garage.

When the car delivery guy showed me the recharging mechanism, I felt like a little kid learning how to put together his first Lionel train set. Scared, nervous? Yeah, I was every bit of that.

I started out slow, baby-stepping the car through its paces. Turns out, I had nothing to fear.

The Volt responded with vigor on the highway and was a nimble urban street warrior in crowded downtown traffic. My reluctance quickly gave way to relaxation as the Volt performed like most other cars, albeit silently.

With the radio on, or when the small gas-fed engine kicks in to rejuvenate the on-board battery, it rarely dawns on you that you’re driving an electric-propelled machine.

I went in fearing the transition from from all-electric to gas-engine-assisted power, thinking it would come with a jolt at highway speed. Nothing of the kind happened. The powertrain transitioned without even a hiccup, and you get plenty of advance warning from the in-dash information center that the car is going from all-electric to engine-assist power.

Speaking of that in-dash information center, there’s more data there than what you get on the complex steering wheel of a Formula One race car. There’s literally too much information to follow while on the move, but rest assured, if you want to know something about how much electric power, gasoline and other things are being used, it’s there to be had.

There are so many monitoring systems in the car that you can get information overload. And my tester was not short of extra comfort/convenience perks, driving the bottom line on the sticker to a somewhat painful $44,970. Yeah, you’ll want to start saving on gas right away after paying that price.

Thing is, that 35-36 miles of all-electric driving after a full charge – turns out that was as easy as charging my cellphone – goes SO, SO quickly … so quickly that you start driving in ways to conserve every bit of juice – not a bad thing I suppose.

The Volt is what I thought it was when I first saw it on the drawing board, a technological marvel and a baseline for the car of the future. Now if they could just bring down the price …

Friday, May 4, 2012

Let's get specific: EX35 fills a need as luxo SUV

Sacramento, California – It’s not easy searching the sport-utility vehicle landscape.

So many variables. So many options. What works for you?

Maybe that one? Oops, no, too big. That one over there? Uh, lousy gas mileage. How about that one? Nah, I need more cargo room than that.

After some time, of course, they all start to look alike. I feel your pain, but I recently had a week in a crossover SUV that really does qualify as a consumer-target vehicle. And by that I mean it has specific amenities that separate it from the crowd.

It’s the 2012 Infiniti EX 35 Journey AWD.

OK, it’s an Infiniti product, so you know that it’s a luxury-level vehicle. And you’re guessing from the extra words in the model name that this is likely the top-level version of the model. And you’d be right.

The EX 35 Journey AWD is the priciest of four trim levels, starting at $39,300. My tester was loaded up with plentiful extras, pushing the bottom line to $45,095. So, right off the bat, you know this is a pretty fancy SUV, and if you’re going to spend that kind of money on it, you probably want to keep it for the long haul.

That shouldn’t be a problem. It’s built to last.

And you’ll notice something else when you walk up to this EX. It looks pretty small. It’s small enough to be completely hidden parked next to a truck, a midsize SUV or even a large sedan. So, if you’re still in the market for that monster-size SUV that can carry most of your kitchen on the road, this is not going to be your choice.

However, the EX35 is large enough to handle most of the grocery, soccer team and yard equipment hauling chores of suburban life. The rear seats fold easily and snap back into place without testing your strength. The smallish-size translates to sedan-like handling on the city streets and the open road.

Power is more than enough with a 3.5-liter V-6 putting out nearly 300 horsepower. Yeah, this EX scoots right along with that package, but the interior cabin is a bubble of quiet. The all-wheel-drive system is a bonus for folks who work in the city on weekdays and sometimes head up into the mountains for recreation on weekends.

Nice touches on the tester included a nicely sculpted aluminum roof rack, 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a seven-speed automatic transmission with adaptive shift control and manual shift mode, intelligent brake assist and a power sliding, tinted-glass moonroof. Inside perks offer more proof that you’re getting a luxury package for your money.

On my ride, that included leather surfaces, rear seat heating/cooling vents, power tilt/telescopic steering column and a rearview monitor projecting to a color 7-inch screen.

Spend enough loot and you can spill over into the ultra-luxury range, where you have on-board access to the Zagat Survey Restaurant Guide. I’m serious!

Gas mileage, by the way, is so-so at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway, a byproduct of 297 horses under the hood.

All in all, this is a nice package. Too expensive for some. Not big enough for others. But for the discriminating SUV shopper, I’m betting this EX is going to be just right.