Thursday, August 30, 2012

Toyota's pioneering Prius: An appreciation

Sacramento, California – Today, American motorists can choose from a blizzard of alternative-powered cars, so many choices that any buyer would be foolish to neglect doing some serious homework before hitting dealer lots.

Back in 2000, that wasn’t true.  That’s when Toyota came to America with its Prius, a gas-electric hybrid that, at the time, seemed so radical and technologically advanced that it intimidated many prospective buyers.  Toyota priced the car a ridiculously low few bucks below $20,000.

Truth be told, the car’s technology for that time probably had a real value of twice that.

Today, you see the Prius everywhere.  Here in California, it’s hard to drive three blocks without seeing at least one.  And you know you’ve hit the big time when you have to choose from a long laundry list of Prius offerings.  Toyota now makes a Prius for virtually every taste, and you need a scorecard to keep up with the models.

In recent weeks, I’ve spent time behind the wheel of a 2012 Prius v, a 2012 Prius c and a 2012 Prius Four.  All of them did the nameplate proud – fuel-efficient, easy to drive, easy to handle and nicely laid out.

I like to think of the Prius as a pioneer in U.S. automotive history.  The fact that you can buy a particular Prius to fit your lifestyle pretty much confirms that the model has become a mainstream player.

I liked the cargo-carrying capability of the Prius v offering, basically an extended hatchback for folks who carry around a lot of cargo and still enjoy the fuel-saving benefits of the car.  The Prius Four came off to me as a luxury-level Prius, with a pleasingly long list of standard perks and a starting price of $28,235.

The Prius flavor getting the most attention seems to be the Prius c (pictured), the comparatively small version of the model with a small price to match -- $23,230 on my top-level tester; the base model of the hatchback’s four trim levels starts at a mere $18,950.

Interestingly, the Prius c has taken hits from fellow car reviewers for being too “Prius Lite.”  The most aggressive critics call it cheap.

That’s a mystery to me, because Toyota has long taken shots for not producing a discount Prius that appeals to smaller incomes and takes some of the string out of the premium you pay for the hybrid technology.  OK, the car has a bit of a tinny sound to it when you shut the doors, but what do you want for a combined 50 miles per gallon in city/highway driving?

Oh, and the Prius c will accommodate five passengers and likewise has a lengthy list of customer-pleasing standard features.

On the roll, I found the Prius c entirely comfortable to drive in both city traffic and during busy freeway commutes.  Would I buy it as a first car for a young, relatively inexperienced driver?  In a heartbeat.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to sample the Prius plug-in, but that model also fills a niche for which Toyota was previously criticized for not filling.

Having had a deep drink of contemporary Prius hardware this year, I can tell you that the pioneer is as admirable as ever.  And if this sounds like an appreciation, well, you’re right on the money.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Power again finds misfortune in the pits

Sonoma, California – Man, Will Power must be developing a purple shrieking hate of pit stops.

For the past two years, mishaps in the pits have cost Power the IndyCar Series title.  Today, pit stop misfortune rose up again to cost him an almost certain victory in the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on the twisting Northern California road course.

Power started the race on the pole and commenced what was shaping up as perhaps the easiest Sunday drive of his career.  Only teammate Ryan Briscoe stayed within shouting distance, and through the first couple of pit stops, Power seemed to be merely toying with his second-place Team Penske teammate.

So, on lap 65, here comes Power for his last pit stop of the day.  The pit crew bumbles a bit on the stop, but no big deal, Power is maybe 10 seconds away from exiting the pits and continuing his effortless cruise in the caution-free race.

Then, CRASH!  Out on the track, Josef Newgarden and Sebastien Bourdais came together in a frightening, grinding impact against the outside wall. Newgarden sustained what were described as minor injuries.

Briscoe, who had been waiting until the last second to make his final pit stop, took the lead when he reached the blend line ahead of Power, who was caught behind traffic during the full-course caution period.

"He definitely had some bad luck in the pits, but we were there all day," Briscoe said
Power was more upset with what he considered blocking on the racecourse.

"I wouldn’t blame the (slow) pit stop,” he said. “It was more on the people that were holding me up. We had an eight-second lead, (and) probably lost four on the pit stop and the rest was at the track.

“And I do understand that you want to go slower where an accident was. It was a big accident for sure, but these (trailing) guys … were back a lap.”

Whatever the explanation, Briscoe took command on the restart, and Power could do no better than second when the checkers flew on the 85th lap.  Four-time IndyCar Series title winner Dario Franchitti was third, turning in what was arguably the best drive of the day; he fought and clawed all afternoon.

Power obviously felt this one was taken away from him.  But there’s this: His IndyCar Series championship points lead ballooned from 5 to 36 points over Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Now, all Power has to do is hang on for two more races, and the 2012 series crown is his.

Alas, he still has a few pit stops to make before calling it a season.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pack racing: Many still in hunt for IndyCar title

Sonoma, California – Honk if you’re still in the running for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship … Enough, I can’t hear myself think!

With only three races to go in the up-and-down IndyCar season, no less than 15 drivers still have a mathematical chance of winning the series crown.  That’s quite a statistic considering that driver Dario Franchitti has virtually owned the series for most of the past five seasons (with a timeout taken to go to NASCAR in 2008).

The long list of contenders likely will be cut dramatically at Sunday’s GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.  The twisting permanent road course in California’s Wine Country has a way of slapping down the competition, and this year probably will be no different.  Here, you can find your championship hopes vanishing amid the flying dirt of a spin in the first turn.

Team Penske’s Will Power finds himself in the familiar position of being primed to win the championship.  Incredibly, Power has seen the trophy vanish with mishaps in the pits for two years running.

Power leads surprising contender Ryan Hunter-Reay by just five points.  Huster-Reay’s midseason burst has put him in position to win the yearlong grand prize.  But three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon are likewise poised to step up with strong finishes here.

The Sonoma course has been tweaked to offer more passing opportunities, so that alone should add to the drama as the pack hustles for the top prize on Sunday.

At some point, I have to believe Power is going grab the IndyCar title that has eluded him the past two years.  He’s shown himself capable during all that time, and he’s pretty much claimed the title of best road racer in the series.  Now, if that usual Team Penske efficiency kicks in and Power keeps it between the lines, it should be a cakewalk for Power.

Right?  Well, maybe.  This is IndyCar racing, after all.

I confess that I’m already thinking ahead to next year and the promised aero packages.  I’m just hoping they don’t mess up the good thing we saw at this year’s Indianapolis 500, where the big holes punched in the air by the new cars provided plentiful passing opportunities and as competitive an Indy 500 as we’ve seen in years.

The 500 is still the jewel of the series, by far … the time when otherwise casual IndyCar fans are paying attention.  Here’s hoping the 2013 race can match the drama of 2012.

For now, things need to get settled in Sonoma.  My money is on Power to take the race, and ultimately, the series title.

Friday, August 17, 2012

NASCAR finish at the Glen was just my style

COMING SOON: I will be blogging from the IndyCar Series race on the permanent road course in Sonoma, California, next week.  In a couple weeks, check out my take on the car that pioneered alternative power among mainstream U.S. motorists – the Toyota Prius. -- mg

Sacramento, California – I can’t remember the last time I stood up and cheered an auto race that I was viewing on television.

It happened last weekend during NASCAR Sprint Cup’s Finger Lakes 355 on the 2.45-mile, 11-turn road course at Watkins Glen International in New York.

The last-lap duel between eventual winner Marcos Ambrose and second-place finisher Brad Keselowski – with disgruntled odd-man-out Kyle Busch thrown in for good measure – was one for the ages.

Alas, there was the usual griping and grousing among the back-end finishers after the checkered flag fell.  For me, the last lap dogfight was racing at its unvarnished best, and all of NASCAR should have taken notice that, rules be damned, this was racing as it should be.

I was a NASCAR follower before many people outside the Southeastern United States knew what it was, but my current gripes with the top-tier Sprint Cup Series are shared by others: too much talking before the race, too many meaningless in-car driver interviews during the pace/caution laps, way too much whining, way too many cautions and some races that seem to go on forever.

I’ve sometimes found myself dozing during a NASCAR race, because, well, I’m just not that interested in who took the lead on the 68th lap of a 500-lap race.  I likewise get tired of late-race cautions caused by drivers making ridiculous moves to move up into the top 10.  Invariably, late-race restarts produce an undeserving winner who just happened to float through the wreckage and is surprised to find that he’s the first one under the checkered flag.

Last Sunday, the final-lap run to the checkers was an action movie packed into two minutes.

Kyle Busch was leading the race, with Keselowski and Ambrose seemingly content to finish in lockstep for second and third.  Suddenly, within a short beer run of the finish, it was obvious that Busch was struggling with something.  We later learned that everyone was struggling with the same thing: plentiful oil on the track as a result of Bobby Labonte’s car springing a major leak.

Suddenly, Keselowski and Ambrose dispatched Busch in a quick-fire burst of dicey moves.  From there, Keselowski and Ambrose raced all-out to the finish.  They bumped, they smashed together, they slid, they went sideways, they blasted through the dirt and the grass – a wild, amazing show that had fans (and yours truly) jumping for joy.

And when it was over, when Ambrose somehow squeezed out Keselowski, who spent most of the last lap sideways, the two came back into the pits with broad grins on their faces.  No whining, no woulda, shoulda, coulda.  They were like two kids jumping off their first roller coaster ride.

The post-race comments of Ambrose and Keselowski essentially summed it up along the lines of: “Man was that great out there, or what???!!!”

It was boys, it was.  Busch team members and other drivers who ran afoul of the oily surface said NASCAR should have thrown the caution flag because the racing conditions had become so dangerous.

Technically speaking, they’re right.  My gut feelings: I don’t care.

Throwing the caution flag would have made for another slow parade and another green-white-checker finish, or probably several of them given the frantic moves drivers were making on the road course.

I’m glad that no hands went for the caution lights and yellow flags, because the show Ambrose and Keselowski put on was the best NASCAR racing I can remember … and maybe the best on-track action I’ve seen since Al Unser Jr. beat Scott Goodyear to the checkers by an eye-blink in the 1992 Indianapolis 500.

Boys having at it? You bet.  Give me more.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Scion iQ reviewed in the latest Cruisin' News

Check out my review of the tiny 2012 Scion iQ in the latest, August 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.

Dodge Charger better inside, Vroom remains

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

Sacramento, California Vroom, vroom, VA-ROOM!!!

Yes, wake up the neighbors.  They need to get out here and take a look at this 2012 Dodge Charger R/T – an old-school rear-driver with a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8.  Here’s what 370 muscular American horses sound like … VA-VA-VROOM!

Yes, I know that’s a terribly rude thing to do to folks living on my street, but this Charger takes you back in time, and the trip feels great.  And don’t I owe it to my neighbors to share my joy?

Sexy lines back up the engine’s roar, and the back end lights up like the White House Christmas tree at night.  No shyness in this thing.  Nor should there be.

Passengers I took out for a blast were impressed with how quiet the car was on the roll.  A mash on the accelerator pressed people into their seats, but their ears were not assaulted.  Call it quiet authority.  This 2012 Charger has it.

Naturally, you can get even more horses if you have the money to spend, but this R/T RWD is a nice, reasonable compromise among the seven trim levels.  It starts five bucks short of $30,000.  Not too bad.

My tester was dressed up with an outrageous number of optional extras, ballooning the bottom line on the sticker to $37,935.  Wow, I didn’t know you could get this many perks with a Charger.  Power adjustable pedals with memory?  Automatically dimming driver’s side exterior mirror?  Heated/cooled front console cupholders?

Holy Lexus, what’s going on here?  I’ll take my horsepower with just a pinch of sugar, if you please.

In truth, it’s a positive development that Chrysler finally got around to modernizing the dash/center stack of controls in the Charger, which in previous years looked as barren as an Arizona desert taxi.  From the cockpit, today’s Charger gives you the feeling of having scores of commands at your fingertips.  And well, you really do have that now.

A five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty is also a plus.  Fuel mileage ratings of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway are, uh, well, not so hot.  But high horsepower is a trade-off these days, right?

One thing I didn’t like was the tardy blind-side warning system on the tester.  It would send a jarring signal through the cockpit when I was well past a lagging motorist in another lane.  If you’re going to put a Hemi in this sedan, at least put a warning system that’s a little quicker on the draw.

Well, you can’t have everything.  But I did enjoy my time in this Charger R/T.  If you have good memories of American muscle, this will bring them back.  Many happy returns.