Thursday, September 27, 2012

Car sales encouraging, but lessons still apply

Sacramento, California – Americans are buying cars again, and that’s a good sign after several years of the Great Recession Blues.

Santa Monica-based says things are slowing a bit, but it has forecast that about 15 million new cars will be sold in 2013.

Their take: “2013 will likely be the first year of non-double-digit sales growth since the recovery began in 2010,” says Lacey Plache, chief economist at “Economic uncertainty at home and spillover effects from slowing economies abroad will continue to slow the pace of American economic growth, including car sales. But many of the same positive factors in play now will continue to support car sales momentum in 2013.”

OK, that’s pretty good news, right?  Sure, it’s not 17 million new units like we were seeing before the recession bomb dropped.  But 15 million is definitely a good number, having come through the firestorm of Cash for Clunkers (remember that) and the cliff edge of American car company failures.

Bonus good news: Used cars continue to sell well on American soil.

It doesn’t take too much of a genius to figure this out: The economy is slowly improving in some parts of the country.  And if you live in, say, Houston, Texas, right now, you know that things are really a whole lot better than they were not that long ago.

People are getting a little more confident about borrowing.  My guess is that many are probably coming out of their shells now that the worst of the fiscal storm apparently has passed.  And let’s face it: Cars have to be replaced at some point.  That car you’ve been nursing along for eight, 10 or 12 years is giving up the ghost, and it’s time to face facts and buy a new one (or perhaps a recent-model used car), lest you end up throwing more dough into the money pit.

While I’m encouraged by all this – and feeling good about jobs in the American auto industry – I think the current state of affairs needs to be taken with a pinch of caution.  I think we learned some things in the recent financial meltdown.  Let’s hope the lessons stick.

For one, the old formula of buying a new car every two or three years is probably gone for good.  At least for most of us.  It makes little economic sense to keep pouring big money into a new ride that often.  It’s like playing the slots in a Vegas casino.  In the long run, you’re likely going to lose.

And Detroit seems to get that.  They’re making cars for the long-term and touting the right things, including good mileage.  Good, that’s a big deal.  A generation ago, only a handful of future-seeing execs were seeing the light.

Detroit also seems to have latched onto the good public relations that can be had by building up fuel mileage numbers in their automotive fleets.  Sure, it’s OK to have a big sport-utility vehicle or a road-burning sports car here and there.  Folks still want those.  But overall, Detroit seems to have its head around the idea that fuelish is not foolish – it’s good business in this particular, somewhat nervous era of American consumption.

Detroit gets this better than the tech industry, which is sticking to the model that you should dump all your technology every two years and spend thousands more on the latest, bestest, powerfullest thing.  I’m guessing that model will ultimately collapse when more Baby Boomers start retiring and counting their pennies.  And two-year-tech reboots are going to be a hard sell until more young people start entering the job market.

I could be wrong of course … but the auto industry seems to have learned how to play the game.

Time will tell.  Right now, gotta run out and see what’s new down at the car lots.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Infiniti's new JX luxury liner a worthy entry

Sacramento, California – The Infiniti JX lineup is all new for 2013, and it steps in right away as a player in the seven-passenger, luxury sport-utility vehicle segment.

My black JX35 tester – with a 265 horsepower V-6 with all-wheel drive – looked very much like a Mercedes-Benz at first glance, and I mean that in a good way.  Impressive, angular lines and smooth, rounded shape on top looked good … and cut through the air nicely when the SUV was on the roll.

Seven full-size adults can fit in this vehicle, and it has the cargo-carrying capacity of a big brute.

Infiniti, perhaps knowing that you have to throw in everything but the kitchen sink when you’re in the luxury segment, did not hold back on the perks.  It would take me 10 minutes to READ the list of luxury, technology, safety/security and comfort/convenience features on the vehicle.

And on my tester, Infiniti broke the bank on extras.  My tester had a starting price of $41,550, but the bottom line under an ocean of optional features totaled $55,170.  Luxury indeed!

I took the vehicle from Sacramento’s sea-level flats over the top of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the south shore of Lake Tahoe … and back.  Impressions: Smooth, quiet, surprisingly powerful when asked and rock-solid on high speed turns, both uphill and downhill.

Fuel mileage for the trip actually came in better than the advertised 18 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.  And I wasn’t babying the thing along.

The JX35’s myriad driver warning and assist systems were interesting to experience but sometimes a pain in the posterior.  The vehicle would routinely beep at me when it thought I was driving out of my lane or veering out of bounds.  Most times, I was simply angling onto a side road, the kind of move that does not require a turn signal.  Fortunately, the beeping system can be turned off at the push of a button.

One time, during a typical run in stop-and-go commuter traffic, the seat belt tightened around me in what the on-board system thought was an imminent collision with a vehicle moving slowly in front of me.  Simply put, it was a big overreaction.

In this era of easily distracted drivers, doing everything from scrolling through music menus to what-are-you-thinking texting, I suppose these systems serve a life-saving purpose.  But for those of us who take driving and command of a motor vehicle seriously, they can be an annoyance.

Paying for the sins of others?  Yeah, probably.

But don’t let that spoil your impressions of the JX35.  It’s a very worthy entry in the luxury SUV segment, and if you have that kind of money to spend on that class of vehicle, it should be on your test-drive list.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Flex fits a certain niche in Ford's lineup

Sacramento, California – Not long ago, I did a review of the Ford Flex that was, well, less than flattering.

I caught hell for it from various folks, not coincidentally all of whom worked in some capacity for the Ford Motor Co.

It wasn’t that I did not like the Flex.  I was mystified by its existence – a massive, gas-guzzling vehicle among other Ford cars that were sending out the precise message Ford wanted to send: We make affordable, dependable vehicles and put a very high priority on gas mileage.

As for the 2013 Flex – freshened for the upcoming model year – I confess that my feelings about the vehicle are pretty much unchanged.

HOWEVER, let me say that the Flex is an outstanding vehicle for a target audience of large families, heavy cargo carriers and folks who regularly head out on the open road for long recreational trips.

If that’s what you dig, this Flex is for you.

My tester was a 2013 SEL AWD, a six-passenger (other Flex models can take up to seven) with a 3.5-liter V-6 (285 horsepower) and a starting price of $35,175.  Gas mileage was advertised at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.  My baby was dressed up in extras that pushed the bottom line on the sticker to $41,935.

That’s a pricey meatball, but the comfort, convenience and safety perks were luxury level enough to justify the cost.  Seriously! Extras on mine included a panoramic vista roof, a very nice touch.

Make no mistake about it: This is a very big vehicle.  It fills up a parking space, and the unique exterior styling makes it downright imposing … that’s imposing in an impressive way.  It’s sort of like a Range Rover on steroids.  Ford calls it a crossover, but I find that impossible.  Think SUV all the way.

On the roll, it’s actually quite smooth, but on a freeway merge ramp, you must really sink your right foot deep to the floorboard.  Ditto at the top of a steep hill.  Interior quiet was surprisingly good.  The brakes brought the big brute to a stop much quicker and firmer than I expected.

If you, the wife and kids routinely take six-hour drives on the roadways, this is the way to roll.  The Flex is like a rolling living room, without the extra size and hassle of a motor home.  If you haul a lot of kids and groceries from place to place (or sporting event to sporting event), the Flex is your cup of tea.

If you commute in a crush of daily urban gridlock and park in tight downtown lots, I would not opt for the Flex.

For some reason, Ford installed those annoying turn signals where you can’t tell if it’s going to blink once, twice or 50 times, and the steering column-mounted turn signal baton actually moves around in different positions. I never mastered it.

For my money, the Flex is better now than it was before.  Yet it’s still a niche vehicle in Ford’s otherwise economical, fuel-sipping fleet.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Chrysler 300S reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Check out my review of the 2012 Chrysler 300S sedan with all-wheel drive in the latest, September 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.

Small wonder: Scion's iQ has its charms

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

Sacramento, California Let me tell you, it has been a long, long time since I’ve test driven a car that did not have cruise control.

I can’t even tell you how long.  Wasn’t Lyndon Johnson the president?  I don’t know, but know this: the absence of cruise control was a relatively mild shock to my senses stacked up against everything I experienced behind the wheel of the 2012 Scion iQ.

First off, you walk up to the thing and you’re convinced that the other half of your car is still out on the road, yet to arrive.  Heck, it’s only 10 feet long. And yet the Scion folks are very quick to point out that their creation is bigger than a Smart fortwo mini-car.

Oh, that’s cool.  And, Scion goes on:  whereas the fortwo is a two-passenger vehicle, the iQ can handle four passengers … Now, hold on here!  Wait a minute!  Are you kidding me???!!!

No, we’re not kidding, they say.  It’s “the world’s smallest four-seater.”

OK, so they’re not kidding.  Scion talks up a quirky, offset, 3-plus-1 interior seating configuration that allows the front passenger seat to go way forward to clear room for a human in the right-side back.  But folks, having been in the car myself, that’s a tough sell.

From my cockpit seat – keeping in mind that I’m 6-4 – I was just able to squeeze my palm between the back of my seat and the seat behind me.  Small child sits there in the back, right?  Sure, I’ll buy it.

And if you want to buy it, the iQ three-door liftback with an automatic transmission starts at $15,265.  Very pleasant number, that.  Here are a couple more: 36 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.

So now you’re saying, great man, but this is a city dweller’s car all the way, right?  Affirmative on that.  Naturally, however, I couldn’t leave it at that, so I took my Scion iQ out for a spirited outing on the dicey Interstate 80 run between Sacramento and San Francisco.

I not only survived, I was stunned at how well the iQ maintained 70 miles per house with just a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder power plant doing the pushing.  It was getting the most out of its 94 horsepower, and it even blew off slowpokes when I became impatient and asked my right foot for more.  Amazing!

It wasn’t until later that I realized that I’d made the round trip with a tank holding only 8.5 gallons of regular gas.  If I’d known that before I started out, I would have absolutely counted on filling it up.  Never had to, it turns out.

Trivia question: How many airbags in the iQ?  If you answered 11, and I doubt that you did, go to the head of the class.

Alas, when you have a car this small, there are concessions of course.  Like no glovebox.  You get a tray that slides under the front passenger seat.  Yet those back seats are good for cargo carrying when folded.  No sense in torturing human beings in them.

Like all Scions, there’s heavy emphasis on the interior sound system, managed via a center-mounted control cluster that looks like something you’d find on a Gulfstream jet.  Never did master how to work the thing.  My loss, I’m sure.

Given everything, the car has its charms.

Five days in, I confess that I was liking this ride.  And when it came time to turn it over, I was unhappy.

Good things in small packages?  I say yes.