Friday, June 29, 2012

Volvo C70 convertible a thrill, even as it baffles

Sacramento, California – The 2012 Volvo C70 T5 convertible showed up in all-black form, looking every inch like a mini-Batmobile.

Which is appropriate, because many of the high-tech features inside the car were a mystery to me, and alas, the Caped Crusader never showed up to give me instructions.  So, I spent a week fumbling with the steering wheel-mounted controls and messing up the navigation system map to the point where I was seemingly driving along an uncharted road in the wilds of Montana.

Simply put, the car’s technology was more powerful than I.  Does this make the C70 a bad car?

On the contrary, I had a bout of techno-idiot syndrome.  The car is actually quite nice.

Especially at speed.  The five-cylinder 2.5-liter turbo power plant has an advertised 227 horsepower, but the performance characteristics felt way beyond that number.  No problem getting aggressive in dicey freeway traffic with this C70.  It moved like a greyhound among turtles.

The weather was warm enough to put the three-piece steel roof through its paces, and watching that roof retreat and reappear is worth the price of admission.  Makes you feel special, and with a starting price of $40,450 on the tester (with extras pushing the price to $51,570), yeah, you have the right to feel special.

The four-seat arrangement is entirely comfortable for four adults, even though the two in the back need to work a little bit to get settled in back there.

Luxury and technology features abound inside the sleek droptop.  Some things, however, left me perplexed.

Most perplexing was the presence of metal on the bottom arc at the top of the steering wheel and on top of the center-mounted floor shifter.  Take it from me: You do not want to be touching those metal parts when the Volvo has been sitting in the hot sun for an hour or more.

The safety technology in this Volvo apparently was derived from an alien culture far more advanced than ours.  The most mind-blowing feature was this: The C70 has metal hoops that shoot up behind the rear seat passengers to protect all in the event of a rollover.  They’re activated by a gyro-sensor, and since the C70 has a glass rear window, the hoops are fitted with small metal spikes … the better to blast up through the window glass if the roof is up during a rollover.

I opted not to test this feature.

Gas mileage is not so bad for a turbo at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.

I think Volvo has given the crowd what it wants from this model: a sexy, sporty convertible stuffed with enough luxury and safety perks to make it feel much pricier than it really is.  How Swede it is!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bowyer's gritty win tops off a sparkling day

Sonoma, California – OK, seriously, how many of you had Clint Bowyer winning today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 before the race began?

I’m guessing that group wouldn’t add up to proper dinner party, but that’s what the road course here will produce when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series comes to town.

Frankly, it was a good race.  Very few cautions, and surprisingly, very little craziness in the turns.  There was a ton of hard, close racing.

And the race featured the usual series of unusual on-track events that make the Sonoma race an annual crapshoot.

Go figure Marcos Ambrose.  One of the very best road racers around, he starts on the pole … and early in the race it’s apparent that his car set-up amounts to a huge swing and a miss.  He dropped like rock through whipped cream, pretty much out of the mix before the halfway point.

Jeff Gordon had, arguably, the best car at the track.  But he too suffered on-track performance mishaps, and then, incredibly, he sees all hope go out the window by running out of gas at the most crucial time to put himself in position to win.

The drive of the race was put in by Tony Stewart, coming from way back to follow Bowyer across the line for second.  Stewart’s car looked life a refugee from a demolition derby junkyard, but even late in the race, he was pulling off incredible inside dives, holding the line and making passes even as smoke poured off his Goodyears.  A seriously remarkable effort.

Ditto for Clint Bowyer.  With 20 laps to go, I thought he was toast.  Yet under gut-turning pressure, he held his line through the turns time and time again, no doubt frustrating pursuer Kurt Busch, who also deserves credit for not taking a couple opportunities to punt Bowyer off the track.

Bowyer’s gritty, gutsy win ranks as one of the most memorable seen here.  I certainly won’t forget it.

Jimmie Johnson turned in yet another top five, and even through no road courses will be part of the season-ending chase for the series championship, Johnson is showing the consistency that won him five consecutive series titles.

With Johnson’s team showing its strength, Stewart flashing the brilliance that carried him to the series title last year and a host of very talented drivers likely to make the chase for Sprint Cup, NASCAR fans can look forward to what likely will be a hugely competitive run to the finish line in November.

That’s a show to look forward to for the rest of the summer and into the fall.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Road course blues? Not a chance, my friend

Sonoma, California – You get a fair amount of griping when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its annual visit to the two-mile road course here.

Team owners, chief mechanics, drivers, fans and maybe even the people who clean up the tons of garbage after the race weigh in with complaints.  Most grousing centers around the idea that a good race team doing very well in the series standings can lose a lot of ground during Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

And bad things can happen without any action on an unlucky driver’s part.

An inexperienced road course driver can dive in to make a hopeless pass attempt, punting your car into the fence.  You can run smack into a pile-up on a narrow section of the track.  You can make one little misjudgment, going off course and tearing something vitally important from the underside of you car.

And naturally, this is not the cup of tea for drivers used to NASCAR’s long parade of ovals with left-hand-only turns.

To which I say: lugnuts.

I’ve long liked the NASCAR stops here and at the Watkins Glen road course in New York.

Yes, you get road-racing specialists showing up to hopefully steal some NASCAR prize money they normally wouldn’t stand a prayer of collecting.

So what?  The more, the merrier.  And if you’re going to lay claim to being NASCAR’s championship driver in its top series, shouldn’t you at the very least prove yourself on a couple of road courses each year?

And let’s face it, these road course races produce some exciting moments, from let-’er-rip passes to seemingly impossible two-wide rides through a tight turn.  That gets the heart racing, no matter what the speed.

And you get different winners at these road course races.  I admit it: I do get tired of seeing the same faces in victory lanes elsewhere.  But a road course will get you a Juan Pablo Montoya, a Robbie Gordon or a Marcos Ambrose celebrating amid the ritual Gatorade shower.

A little variety.  I love it.

And I’ll be shamelessly rooting for pole-sitter Ambrose to win here on Sunday.  A totally likable man with relentless competitive instincts, Ambrose has hopefully won some good karma after some atrocious bad luck experienced here in the past.

You go, Marcos.  And you other guys, stop complaining and turn right every now and then.  It’s only one race.  I expect it will be a good one.

Friday, June 22, 2012

At day's end, I still have the need for speed

Sonoma, California – The pole speed set today by Marcos Ambrose for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 here was 95.262 miles per hour.

That’s about right for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race on a twisting road course.

There will be no complaints about high speeds here this weekend, which will be a change of late.  Because, ironically, in the world of major American auto racing, high speed is under attack.

NASCAR officials wore deer-in-the-headlights looks last week, when a small army of Sprint Cup drivers put up 200 mph-plus laps at the high-banked Michigan International Speedway oval.  Omigod!  They’re going so fast!  What to do?!

NASCAR’s solution was to approve alterations of the left-side tires to slow the cars down.  There was a brief mention that NASCAR machines were hitting 200 mph a quarter century ago, but it seemed drowned out in the rush to get the current cars back under the 200 mph-per-lap threshold.

I understand the concern.  Tires were being eaten up at those speeds.  NASCAR veterans also recalled crashes of a generation ago, with 200 mph speeds absorbing big portions of blame.  Yet you’d think that 25 years of aero engineering evolution would have come up with a solution that allows for higher speeds on ovals, while also maintaining safety.

I can’t argue too much with NASCAR’s call.  After all, the series thrives on comparatively heavy cars dicing and bumping in close quarters.  These cars were never meant to be missiles.

However, I am demoralized at what’s going on in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

IndyCar announced this week that it will allow a maximum rear flap angle of 37 degrees and not allow a wicker for Saturday’s Iowa Corn 250 on the .875-mile Iowa Speedway oval.  This will reduce downforce, and if things turn out anything like they did at the recent race on the high-speed oval in Texas, negate close pack racing – the kind of racing that used to bring Texas crowds to their feet.

“Like Texas, we want to make sure the challenge is in the drivers’ hands and make them work each lap,” said Will Phillips, INDYCAR’s vice president of technology.  “It will be more of a challenge for drivers once their tires start to go off during the 250-lap race.”


So, based on that, fans will be treated to spread-out racing in comparatively unstable cars, which will become increasingly unstable as their tires go off.  That’s opposed to, say, high-speed, wheel-to-wheel racing for prolonged periods of time under the green.

Forgive me, but my love of IndyCar racing has long been based on the latter.

I understood last fall that the storm was coming.  The death of two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon during a horrific crash on a tight, high-banked Las Vegas oval made everyone rethink what was going on out there.

I’m not advocating more speed over safety.  Not a chance. But for my money, what happened in Vegas was fostered by too many cars on a narrow track.  I’d start by cutting the field off at, say, 20 cars.  And sadly, what happened to poor Dan was just bad, awful luck – his car ripping into the catch fence cockpit side.  Frankly, I hate current catch fence technology and wonder if it’s possible to develop a super-strong, clear composite to replace the dangerous weave of wires, cables and poles.

It’s been said that you know you’re getting old when you start complaining about the very things that have stirred your lifelong passions.  And I suppose I’m sounding very much like that now.  But I’ve always considered Indy cars to be the edge, the envelope, the Blue Angels amid a series of biplane races.

Too fast?  That complaint has been registered since the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.  I remember when some 200,000 would show up at Indianapolis on pole day in the 1960s, tingling with excitement at the prospect of the 150 mph barrier being broken.  In 1968, turbine-powered racers blazed through 170 mph for a lap, and some people thought that was the outer extreme of the ragged edge.

A mere four years later, cars were lapping near 200 mph.  And let’s face it, 200 isn’t even a decent warm-up lap at Indy today.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want to see a return to the deadly days of the 1950s and 1960s, when it was not uncommon for three, four or more name Indy car drivers to die in a season.  Safety advances won’t let that happen today.  And for me, nothing compares with watching an Indy car driver wheel a car at high speed in close quarters, and then come strolling into the pits like it was the most natural thing in the world … That’s what turned me on as a kid.  No wonder I considered these drivers to be gods.

Somewhere along the way, years after the heartbreaking/fan-crushing CART/IRL split, I think INDYCAR lost sight of what made it so thrilling to fans of all ages.  Thankfully, this year’s Indianapolis 500 was the best of all worlds – seriously high speeds and aero packages that allowed liberal passing.  It was great to see.

Hopefully, the powers that be will continue to develop INDYCAR’s aero packages, prompting a return to more high-speed, wheel-to-wheel oval racing action.  I might be in the minority on that.  Probably am.  But after 50 years of watching the evolution of Indy cars, I can only hope.

Good gets even better with Mercedes SUV

BULLETIN: I will be blogging from NASCAR's Toyota/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma this weekend - mg

Sacramento, California – Don’t you just love it when good gets better?

Take the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML550 4MATIC sport-utility vehicle, for example.  The third generation of this all-wheel drive SUV is better in every way.  Bigger, more powerful and more structurally solid than its predecessor, this M-B crowd carrier is a fine addition to any driveway.

Naturally, you have to be ready to pay -- $57,590 to start on my tester, which was liberally dressed up in extras to tip the scales at $66,000 and change.

Never being one to dwell on the irony of testing a vehicle I can’t afford, I dug right in.  So did the ML550.

Just a slight nudge on the gas caused the tires to seemingly immerse themselves in the pavement, pressing me into my cockpit seat and giving my heart a start.  They weren’t telling tall tales with the horsepower and torque ratings of 402 and 443 foot-pounds, respectively.

For all the juice, steering was remarkably just-right firm and comfortable.  Even loaded up with cargo, the tester offered no resistance.  It just moved ahead with smooth and quiet grace.  Luxury liner?  Ah, yes.

The seven-speed adaptive automatic transmission, by the way, was a sweet, seamless piece of engineering.  I actually found time to savor the magnificent cruising sensation amid a blizzard of comfort/convenience features.  Mercedes-Benz did not hold back on the perks in this model, stuffing it with enough goodies to keep even the most relentless button-pusher happily occupied.

It’s a small touch, but one I like: running boards.  Typically, I have to sort of fall out of the cockpit seat of a big-shouldered SUV.  Not so here.  A light step onto the running board, and I’m on my way.

All this is accompanied by an incredibly long list of safety and security features – top tier equipment under Mercedes’ hand.

Fuel mileage was – sheesh! – only 15 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. That hurts.

I also was not fond of the optional blind spot assistance system, which was slow on the draw.  I don’t need a warning when I’ve blown 50 yards beyond a car that was just recently in a blind spot in the adjacent lane.

Overall, this ML550 does the automaker proud.  Congratulations to those who have the funds to buy one off the lot.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Jag XKR-S droptop reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – This blog will take some time off next week.

But if you need a fix, check out my review of the 2012 Jaguar XKR-S convertible in the latest, June 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, 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.

Kia Soul with a ! produces smiles all around

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

Sacramento, California – With the 2012 Kia Soul, the South Korean automaker asks you to “think outside the box.”

But don’t think too far outside the box, because this crossover has a funky, boxy shape that turns heads wherever it rolls up. And while it qualifies as a crossover, most consider it a wagon.

That’s OK too, because the back end of the Soul can be configured to carry a big boatload of cargo. The maximum passenger load is five.

Of three trim levels, mine was the priciest (starting at $19,600), known as the Soul ! … What’s that, you say? An exclamation point is part of the title? Yes, that’s actually the designated name of the top-line Soul model. From there, you move down to the Soul + … Yes, that’s a plus sign. And the most basic is simply called the “base” model.

Wow, I can hardly wait for a smiley face version in the near future.

Where to start with this Soul? Hip, unusual-looking and wearing headlights/taillights the approximate size of large pizza plates, this shapes up as a young person’s ride. Yet there are plenty of charms in the Soul for baby boomers and older.

The 2-liter, four-cylinder, 164-horsepower engine on the tester was peppy enough. The Soul cruised the madhouse freeways with ease, and I never felt like I was driving a runt of a car in heavy traffic. The Soul has enough of a small SUV feel to make you feel secure behind the wheel.

Interior amenities are plentiful for the price. Coolest simple pleasure is changing colors on the round edges of speakers installed in the front doors, a visual delight that can be set to pulse in time with the music on the audio system. Take my word for it: Passengers go crazy when they see this mini disco show.

A power sliding/tilt sunroof was standard. Nice touch.

The Soul can be dressed up with the usual lot of pricey extras, including a navigation system, heated front seats and a push-button starter.

The ! version of Soul is distinguished by projector headlamps with LED accents, LED taillights and 18-inch alloy wheels.

Regardless of model, the Soul is a smile-producing experience, and a pretty smart buy for a young family looking for an affordable runabout.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Outback raises the bar in sport-wagon segment

Sacramento, California – Maybe it has been too long and my memory is fading in my old age, but wow, the 2012 Subaru Outback I had for a week recently sure seems way more substantial than past Outbacks I’ve driven.

And I mean that on every level. Bolder stance, firmer, more powerful, plentiful interior space, improved handling.

OK, I had the top-level 3.6R Limited model – starting at nearly $32,000 and boasting the 3.6-liter boxer-6 engine with 256 horsepower – so I was definitely getting the Outback-to-the-max treatment.

But still, this founding father of the sport-wagon/crossover movement came off as the perfect substitute for a sport-utility vehicle … no small consideration in these days of dollar-counting consumers.

On the practical side, it looks stout enough, sort of station wagon on steroids. Plus you get the high ride height, enabling the frame to step over boulders and other obstacles if you opt to take it off the paved roadways.

You get the standard all-wheel-drive treatment, and hands down, nobody does that better than Subaru. You get the best that AWD has to offer. Seamless, flawless, peerless.

On the roll, my Outback was responsive and enthusiastic in all conditions, yet steering was midsize-sedan easy. The Outback took on hills with seemingly little effort, and very little noise.

A nicely laid out interior of controls added to good feelings of instant interior comfort. Passengers I drove around stretched out and didn’t want to get out of the vehicle.

Versatile? I should say so. The Outback is night-on-the-town elegant, yet rugged when it’s asked to be. Interior configurations allow for transporting of big people and bulky cargo.

Fuel mileage ratings are so-so at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

My tester had an opulent option package that included a power moonroof, a navigation system and a rear-vision camera. Nice enough, but you can still keep the price close to $30K if you can do without those extras and press for a deal.

I’ve often been mystified why Subaru doesn’t get more credit for the finely engineered products it puts out. The automaker does a good job. And this Outback is more proof of that.