Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The 2011 Ford Explorer: Saleen May Not Be Needed for This One

Yes, I know, this is not how it's going to look. I'm going to stop posting "ofmg the new Explorerr is teh awezome111!!!" everywhere. But I'm not going to post a test mule photo that looks like a Lincoln MKX covered with electrical tape. Reports on blogs and forums suggest the 2011 will look more like the Taurus X. What's more, the asinine V8s Ford has offered are out, and EcoBoost is in.

Old FaithfulI married into a family that has at least three Explorers, two first generation Sports and one second generation XLT. They might discover another one they forgot about in the grass somewhere. And it'll probably start right up.

You have to give the Explorers credit. They are mightily uncomplicated to the point a frog could change the tranny juice. In fact, American trucks and SUVs have always been rather bulletproof, Fords, GMs and Chryslers alike. That means they go forever. They go forever like a first-gen Lexus LS. Boringly. I'm not sure the Saleen versions were much better than what the factory churned out. I think the parents and professionals in this country who can't afford a Cayenne GT-S should have something a lot better.

That is why the 2011 Explorer is so exciting to me. Not only will it continue to be a people-mover with plenty of room for the trappings of Americana, it's going to do it with a 340-horsepower, direct-injection V6, 25 percent better fuel economy and lightweight materials. Look out, Pilot.

No, I haven't driven one, and neither has anyone else outside of Ford. Yes, it could turn out to be an epic pile of excrement. But Ford's detractors likely have not examined its newest products. I may be a little too excited about this vehicle, but I've got precedent.

And congrats to the folks in Chicago who get to build it. Maybe you can hire Blago to scrub out the toilets.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hey, Toyota, How About Some Intended Acceleration?

I thought unintended acceleration was just for flaky Audis. I can only imagine the reaction Bob the Accountant had when his '07 Avalon careened past 45 miles an hour and he spilled his Crystal Light on the floormat.

According to Toyota, it instructed dealers today to stop selling the following vehicles due to accelerator pedals that can stick or are slow to return to their "unpressed" position:
  • 2009-10 RAV4, Corolla, Matrix
  • 2007-10 Camry and Tundra
  • 2005-10 Avalon
  • 2008-10 Sequoia
  • 2010 Highlander
The fix for now until you can get your flasedan fixed? Hit the brakes and turn off the car.

Is Toyota sure something's broken? Judging from this group of anesthetics, I'd say any acceleration would have been unintended.

Toyotas aren't bad cars, even though of late they have been ragged by the press and competitors for some corner-cutting that's probably a result of cost-cutting. Remember the last generation Supra Turbo? There is nothing about that car I don't like, and if you want one, good luck finding one. If I had to buy a small truck, I'd likely look no further than the Tacoma. That's where my current affection for Toyota ends.

With all Toyota's money and its treasure trove of gifted engineers, there is no excuse for them to build such boring cars. Toyota, look at this rash of difficulties with your lineup as an opportunity to reinvent the cars into dream machines. Show me any person who lays awake at night right now dreaming of a Corolla CE, and I'll show you a liar.

Saab's Got a Home Kind Of

It's official maybe. Saab has been sold to Spyker kind of. That means we get many more years of the most underrated sedans and sportwagons on the planet perhaps.

How many cars does Spyker (its C12 Zagato pictured to the right) sell every year, or month for that matter? Saab sold 371 cars in November. That's a really puny number. Spyker, however, plans to build only 24 units of its C8 Laviolette LM85. Not just this year. Ever.

Saab was most profitable in the mid-1980s when it sold nearly 49,000 units in a year. A loaded TurboX already approaches the $50k mark; so I'm sure a hand-made TurboX would be just a bit more expensive.

Right now, I'm marginally more confident than I am about the real estate guru who plans to resurrect Studebaker. His last Web site update was two years ago.

Cheekiness about the Koenigsegg-Spyker-GM-Saab drama aside, I don't know why these cars don't sell better. Oh wait, it's the atrocious resale value and the stupid interior. OK, it's not altogether stupid on any car, just on a car that sells for nearly $50,000. But there's still no getting around how rapidly these cars depreciate. They depreciate so badly, Bank of America typically will not lend money to a potential Saab buyer. Of course, Bank of America probably wouldn't lend Warren Buffet $500 without the title to his Cadillac as collateral.

But here's where I give Saab the credit it is due. These cars are fun as hell, and you cannot kill them. Considering that, maybe I need to shut the hell up about the bloomin' interior.

My wife and I tried out a Saab 9-7x 5.3i before we bought our Flex. It handled much better than its Chevrolet cousin, and that V8 shot the SUV forward like debris from Bart Simpson's slingshot. It's a hell of a lot better looking than the TrailBlazer, too, but unfortunately, the 9-7x will be built no longer as the Moraine, Ohio, plant has closed.

Another thing to which we can look forward: the new 9-5 won't be rebadged as a Buick (rumored to be offered with a Prune Package). The new 9-5 is a sexy, sexy Swedish beast if I've ever seen one. Actually, I don't think I've seen one until now.

Those older 900 and 9000 models are everywhere. Expect the 9-3 and 9-5 cars to stick around just as long. I see almost as many older 9-3 convertibles as I do Chrysler Sebring convertibles and Miatas.

So, Spyker, you're in my thoughts. Keep making 'em well, keep making 'em fast. But please, do something about that stupid lattice-style air vent.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Admiral! There Be Volts Here!

General Moneygrabbers -- er -- Motors announced today Washington, D.C. is now among three test markets for the Chevrolet Volt. Of all the electric cars homing in on our driveways, this one is probably the most attractive, and likely the most realistic for commuting in places like D.C.

"Chevrolet will deliver more than 100 Volts to several utilities across the U.S. – including Pepco and Dominion, which serve Washington D.C. and its suburbs – as part of an extended demonstration program. The overall program includes 500 charging stations that will be installed for residential, business and public use. They will be used to learn more about the installation process, vehicle charging and to gauge customer feedback," according to GM's press release.

Unlike GM's delusions that Hummers were of any value whatsoever, GM's idea to plug in the Volt here in DC is pretty grounded. We drive a lot up here, so people are not interested in Peel P50-like pods that run out of juice after 40 miles and can't even be supplemented by farts or kamikaze mosquitos smeared on the windshield. The Volt, indeed, goes a pansy 40 miles on its 149-horsepower electric motor, but once that milestone is reached, a 71-horsepower four-banger powers a generator to make the Volt go 300 more miles. Stomp on frogs and shove a crow bar up my nose.

Still, charging the car means the Volt plunges its straw into a disease-causing, filthy, coal milkshake. Its lithium ion batteries aren't too great for the environment, either. I've said it once, and I'll say it again: the Honda FCX Clarity is probably the most completely green car on the market.

I wish GM had stayed much closer to the concept for the Volt's exterior design. Now the poor thing will be mistaken for a second-generation Honda Insight. But at least, unlike the Commuter Cars Tango (stupid $%&#ing car-excuse), it can seat a family. And that means whenever I can, I'll be trying one out.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cool Doesn’t Mean Fast: 15,000 Miles in a 2009 Ford Flex Limited

Typically, I see a station wagon as one piece of Shredded Wheat welded to a larger one. My opinion would change if the Mercedes-Benz E63, BMW M5 and Audi RS6 wagons swam across the pond to storm through suburbia. But Pat Robertson might die of cardiac arrest after learning mothers might put on shoes and enjoy their errands (worse, dads would ride in the back seat and give the babies their bottles! Heresy!).

So you would not expect me to buy what is basically Ford’s Clark Griswold Mobile for the new millennium. But that is precisely what my wife and I bought last summer. My wife wanted an epic amount of space and I wanted an adrenaline rush. She got what she wanted in spades, and 15,000 miles later, I got what I’ve found is a very nice consolation prize: coolness.

What’s Cool:

  • The roominess is ridiculous. The seats fold down with incredible ease to accommodate Bono’s ego and a box of tissues. Usually, we have the third row folded down for groceries, the stroller, etc. Ford’s super-thick floormats cover all the carpet, including the folded-down third row, and catch my son’s flying Goldfish crackers with finesse. The panoramic sunroof opens it up even more, making a ride in the Flex comparable with few other cars. The ambient lighting is a completely unnecessary feature, but it adds even more to the interior and my son loves to see purple hues appear on his Spiderman sneakers.
  • To enjoy all this room, Ford provides perforated, leather trim on top of seats that rival the foam-on-plywood feel in VW’s wagons. I fell asleep once while my wife was driving; a first since toddlerhood for sure.
  • Jesus would select this car’s 12-speaker, 390-watt, Sony sound system to listen to hymns. Surround sound mode is a great addition to any much-treasured solo trip to the grocery store. My son, who requires a 24/7 Elmo and Thomas the Tank Engine feed, is quite happy with the ceiling-mounted DVD system. We’ve yet to play anything for the over-2-year-old audience, but we do benefit from his silence while enduring insipid songs about libraries.
  • Fuel economy is very impressive for this 4,450-pound bus. We can go about 400 miles on a tank, and Ford’s mileage readout provides realistic MPG estimates. What? You’re not getting 100 mpg in your 7-series after all?
  • I can always find this car in the parking lot. No car I’ve owned has attracted this much attention for this long. A few days after we bought it, we had our windows down as we were backing out of our driveway. We heard a girl not more than 8 with a white, summer dress riding a bike with pink streamers exclaiming, “That car is TIGHT!” I don’t go a day without someone asking me about the Flex after I climb out of it.
  • Let me be clear: the Flex is not a very fast vehicle. The 3.5 liter Duratec does, however, have a significant amount of low-end grunt to get around the Escalade grumbling beside you at the stoplight.
  • Many of Ford’s V6s have sounded rather gravelly, too much like a Chevrolet Beretta. This car is as quiet as a Lexus LS460, and it rides like a Mercedes S550. I’m not kidding.
  • You do not feel any sense of worry that quota-obsessed, American corner-cutting is going to rear its ugly head. This car is put together so well that Honda and Toyota had better be worried for the sake of the Pilot and the Venza. There are no ill-fitting ovals and no cheap buttons or dials. No green radio display, either!
  • When you open the hood, the engine looks like… an engine. No Galaxy-class covers here. When the warranty expires, maintenance should be a cinch.

What’s Not Cool:

  • Being built for total smoothness has its drawbacks: the 6-speed slushbox is way too reluctant to downshift. This eats away at what could be much better passing times. An option on the ’09 to shift through the gears with a flick of the wrist would have taken care of this issue lickety-split.
  • Ford likes to say the Flex handles like a sports sedan. And if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a Ferrari. Standard all-wheel drive might alleviate the wobbly cornering behavior (the EPA says fuel economy goes down minutely with the AWD option), but being 17 feet long would prevent much improvement.
  • We wanted satellite navigation, but taking a model without it saved us thousands. The lack of Ford’s sexy sat-nav system gives you a cluttered casserole of buttons. Inserting a CD takes too many button pushes (yes, I am a Generation-Y guy who does not burn each CD to his iPod, deal with it). Ford’s SYNC system also should be more intuitive; getting your iPod to work properly involves pulling over and re-reading the manual. Also, going without sat-nav means we didn’t get a back-up camera (though we do hear a shrill beeping as we reverse closer to an obstruction).
  • Why doesn’t the front passenger window go up with one flick of the switch? You must hold the window control until the window is all the way up. A car with all this gadgetry really should have this ‘90s-era feature.
  • Optioned all the way, the Flex Limited reaches the $50,000 mark fast, especially if you get a ’10 model with the EcoBoost engine that gives you 93 more ponies. There are tons of other cars I’d rather have for that price, and they’re vastly more exciting, too. (It should be noted our Flex Limited was far less expensive, thanks to the great folks at Magic City Ford in Roanoke, Virginia.)
  • Where in blazes is Ford’s advertising campaign for this car? Flex ads were all over the TV when we first test-drove one in 2008, but they’ve evaporated. I don’t see many Flexes, and maybe, just maybe, call me crazy, but could that be because, more than a year after its introduction, still hardly anyone knows about the Flex?
People should know about the Flex. Otherwise, they will spend countless, plain-oatmeal hours in minivans or pay $20,000 more for a German luxo-hauler that’ll cost even more with skyscraper-high maintenance bills. While I would prefer stickier handling and more guts in the more-affordable, Duratec-equipped model, the enthusiast in me remains reasonably satisfied because people who plug along in their RX300s and Quests envy the Flex’s dazzling array of techy features, astonishing exterior lines and silken ride. My wife couldn’t be happier with those features and the ability to carry around whatever we need, whenever we need. That makes us feel like two of the coolest parents around.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Apparently, It Takes One to Tango, Albeit Stupidly

It seems folks at the Detroit Auto Show are taking "test rides" in the Commuter Cars Tango. Zero to 60 in four seconds means the car is awesome, right? George Clooney bought the first one, so, we should all fawn over it, right?


These cars piss me off. It's basically a high-performance REVA G-Wiz, but in this thing, you can fit one person. It takes you 80 miles before you need to charge it. So, while it may take up less space and, if enough of them were purchased, like a few million, gas prices might budge a tiny bit (I'd wager by about two cents), it still needs charging probably several times a week. And from where does all that electricity come? Nearly all of it comes from burning coal. Coming from a guy whose old stomping grounds are in the cross-hairs of Big Coal and its mountaintop removal methods, this is unacceptable.

I hope cars like these are a fad in the same vein as laser discs. The Honda FCX Clarity, while likely as exciting as a calculus lecture, is a much better example for how we can preserve our natural resources. And it seats five.

You're Going Shopping with Me!

One day, one glorious day, one champagne-flooded day, my commuter car (nope, still not telling you what it is… yet) will have to be replaced. As we’re a typical, American family in 2010, things are pretty tight right now with one car payment already (and a mortgage, and childcare, etc.). Walking into a dealer and sitting for 40 minutes and drinking tiny bottles of water while Laszlo gets the financing paperwork ready won’t happen for a few years.

But shouldn’t a $35,000-40,000 purchase deserve tons and tons of research? If you didn’t get in on the ground floor at Google or you’re not adept at robbing banks, you’ll probably need to finance a car that costs that much. Most of us would need to finance a $15,000-20,000 car, too (and there are some great ones out there). A car is a long-term investment, and you’d better do your homework.

The Internet is a great place to start (visit, oh, say, The Torque Retort). But you’ve gotta try out any potential contenders.

Here’s where you come in. I’ll have to buy a car in a few years. You might have to buy a new car in a few years, too, or maybe sooner. I’ve got a huge list of my own contenders. This’ll be my test driving checklist. I’ll post my detailed review of each car, along with pictures, and if a sales associate (douchebaggish or otherwise) isn’t required to accompany me on a test drive, video as well. You’ll get a feel for these cars, as well, and maybe you might add a few of these to your list.

The List

The 2009+ Infiniti G37x sedan is at the top of my list right now with a staggering list of features, a gutsy 3.7 liter V6, and a host of accolades from consumers and critics. But I haven't driven one. So, I may very well find the car is goat puke.

I’ve grouped cars I’d like to try into several categories.

Will I be brave enough to get back into an Audi? Maybe. The 2010 version has a 3-liter V6 vice a V8, but it's quicker to 60. But the exhaust note from that older, 4.2-liter V8 is intoxicating.

Realistic favorites:

  • 2009+ Infiniti G37x
  • 2009+ Acura TL SH-AWD
  • BMW 335i
  • 2007+ Audi S4 Avant or sedan
  • Lexus IS350
  • Lexus IS-F
  • 2007+ Lexus LS460 (This is considered to be one of the most reliable cars of all time. It may also qualify me for early AARP entry. We’ll see.)
  • Mercedes C350 Sport
  • 2010+ Ford Taurus SHO (have you seen the interior of the new Tauruses? You’ve come a long way, baby!)
  • 2008+ Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR Premium
  • Volvo C30 R-Design
  • 2009+ Nissan Maxima SV

Am I off my rocker to think I could have a 2009 Cadillac CTS-V? Probably. But I'm probably downright headed-for-the-asylum to think a GT-R is in my immediate future.

Much less realistic favorites:

  • 2009+ Nissan 370Z
  • Nissan GT-R (I know. My only hope is some idiot has no idea what it is and wants it gone. Hey, stranger things have happened. It’s even a slim chance a dealer or seller would let me even test drive it)
  • 2009+ Cadillac CTS-V with Recaro seats
  • Chrysler 300 SRT-8 or Charger SRT-8
  • 2009+ Mercedes AMG C63
  • 2010+ Chevrolet Camaro 2SS

A game-changing, 60-mpg-in-the-city phenomenon? Or an appliance with the personality of a paper clip? Picture from Wikipedia user S 400 HYBRID

And finally, the fuel sippers. Some of them might not be total dishwater. We’ll see.

  • 2009+ Volkswagen Jetta TDI
  • 2010+ Ford Fusion Hybrid
  • 2010+ Toyota Prius
  • 2010+ Honda Civic
  • 2010+ Mazda 3s five-door
  • 2010+ Audi A3
  • BMW 335d

Hopefully I can start to try out these cars soon. Regardless, I’ll be looking at as many as I can when I visit the Washington Auto Show on January 30 (show goes from Jan. 27-31).

The Cars of My Past

I’ve had some great cars, and some less than great cars. Here’s my car history:

Pimped-Out Cozy Coupe®. My parents gave me my first ride, a red Cozy Coupewith a yellow roof, in the early 1980s. Most children were tickled pink with the standard Coupe. But I decided mine needed some customizing. I stole some spare piping, and affixed it to the side with duct tape. Instant Flowmasters. I took old license plates my dad had saved from my mother’s old ’71 Ford Maverick, and taped one on each end. I could have Fred Flintstoned onto U.S. Route 11 and not been pulled over (and might have gone faster than that strange woman with a ‘62 Barracuda who always wore a pillbox hat).

1981 Volvo DL Wagon. My dad bought this car in 1990 from a man with whom he worked, as we needed a replacement quick for Dad’s ailing 1972 Audi 100 LS (which he didn’t shed until 13 years later, actually). It was dark green over tan vinyl, with a garish luggage rack. We were very familiar with Volvos, as they were the business vehicle of choice where my father worked for a long time, and whenever Dad drove home in a shiny 740 or 960, my sister and I bolted out of the house like Mexican

Imagine this car as a wagon, in dark green.

restaurant patrons headed to the crapper and climbed all over the damn thing. Brand new cars just were not in the budget at that point. When I got my learner’s permit at age 15, six years after we got the Volvo, this was what I drove, either with Dad telling me to look behind me and use the side-view mirrors for changing lanes (bah!), or Mom sucking air through her teeth and bracing herself every time I committed various driving atrocities, such as shifting, turning, braking, accelerating, merging, and passing Ethel in her Delta 88.

I drove this car during my junior year of high school. At the time, I mostly loathed it. It weighed well over two tons, and to move this weight, Volvo decided a 2.3 liter four-banger with an epic, the-envy-of-Atlas, another-dimesion-portal-opening, Triple-H-horrifying 114 horsepower would be the best-suited powerplant. With this mighty colossus of internal combustion mastery, this car did 0 to 60 in a three-day weekend, and whenever it was necessary to floor the accelerator, the car shook like the previously-mentioned Mexican restaurant patrons. This car was my transportation when Van Halen was my favorite musical group. To accommodate Eddie’s firefingers and David Lee Roth’s ego, the car had an AM/FM radio with two speakers. That would have been fine if my favorite musician was Garrison Keillor. Maybe, in that case, no speakers would have been best.

Problems associated with age included no air conditioning, horrendous brake disc noise, and plenty of confidence-building squeaks and rattles. Confidence. That’s a touchy matter for a 16-year-old kid at a Camaro Z28- and Mustang GT-infested high school who drives an ’81 Volvo. It was as if this car made every zit on my face 10 times greasier. The Volvo drew more than its share of mean-spirited laughter. There was a dual-axle F350 which was considering giving the Volvo a swirly, I think.

I could have had no car at all to drive. When I look back on it, there was at least one cute girl at school who thought my Volvo was like Bono on wheels (of course, she was taken). I could have carried Jimmy Hoffa and the rest of the Teamsters in that trunk. One more thing about the car which really was remarkable was the turning radius. Even with its size, I could throw that Swedish meatball into any parking space from any angle and do U-turns that’d iron the wrinkles out of your sack.

The car met its end in the summer of ’98 when I was rear-ended at a stoplight by a Chevy Venture. Strangely enough, the Chevy was being driven by the man my parents had hired to build their new house. You wanna talk about eyes as big as dinner plates. . . . Anyway, that Venture was decimated quite well, but was repaired soon after. The Volvo was totaled, but not in the way you’d think. There was a noticeable dent in the trunk and rear bumper, and you couldn’t open the rear passenger doors, but what only my father could see, from looking at the roofline, was the frame was bent. The Volvo lives on gloriously now in our flatware, and the Chevy driver visits my parents often in the house he built.

1987 Audi 5000 wagon. After the Volvo bought the farm, Mom and Dad flirted briefly with the idea of buying me an older car. Man, I tore through those classifieds and circled all kinds of things I wanted to try out. BMWs, M-Bs, Camaros, even a 1970 Dodge Coronet convertible. Sweet Jesus, I wanted a girl to be attracted to me! But things typically do not go as I would like, and I got Mom’s ’87 Audi wagon while Mom got a new car.

Uber-meaningful teen angst aside, this was a vast improvement over the meatball. The Audi had an oddball, five-cylinder engine, which had an output similar to that of the Volvo, but the Audi didn’t weigh hardly anything. That car screamed way more than a car of its gifts should have screamed. Mom and Dad had installed an aftermarket stereo, so I could crank up “Drop Dead Legs” and “Panama” without fail.

This was one of the most aerodynamic cars of its time. For some reason, looking at it now, I think it's hideous.

Even with front-wheel drive, the car was related to the legendary Audi Quattro Sport, so Mom’s wagon stuck to curves like my son’s goober-slime does to my dress shirts. By God, I even had a sunroof. But still no girlfriend.

It was not all bratwurst and Hefeweizen with the Audi 5000. If you’re a ridiculous car dork like me, you’ve heard about the 5000’s “unintended acceleration” problem. I swear up and down this wasn’t always a matter of the pedals being too close together and stomping the gas when you intended to mash the brake. Just once, when I was leaving school one day, the RPMs shot up to 4,000 and the Audi laid several feet of rubber in the parking lot. At least the brakes still worked after I had finished cleansing my own colon, helping me avoid a Plymouth Acclaim waiting for a break in traffic.

There was also the time my father drove the car to work one day and, with the keys in his hand, the engine tried to turn over. Apparently, there was some kind of short circuit in the electrical system, which essentially sent my parents three or four mortgage bills that month.

Put mildly, the car was fun to drive when it wasn’t in the shop. There’ve been no Audis in my family since then, and unless someone hits the lottery or I finish and publish a best-selling novel, that won’t change. I drool my own ocean every time I see an RS4 or an R8, but I know, deep down, even if I could afford it, I’d pay for the car several times over. My guess is the simple, four-cylinder A3 and A4 models are the best value and less like a Dorito-crumb-covered roommate who never pays his half of the rent and eats all your groceries.

1990 Volvo 240 DL sedan. Before I went 50 miles down the road to college, it was apparent I could not take the Audi, or any other car our family had. So, in the last few weeks of my senior year, my father chose for me a 1990 Volvo 240 DL sedan. I would have preferred more say in the matter, but he held the purse strings. So, back I was in a Volvo 240, dreadfully slow and as sexy as Warren Christopher. But it was a safe car, and that kept the girls lining up for… nope. It was dark blue with dark blue, cloth interior. This must have been the Silken Meatball Edition, as it had a decadent, 120-mph speedometer and heated seats (which did not work), and the previous owner had installed a Boston Acoustics sound system. I’d moved away some from Van Halen into becoming the world’s most rabid U2 fan, and “The Joshua Tree” sounded damn good on that stereo. Also, I did not have the wagon stigma anymore that assigns you automatically a pocket protector, acute asthma and a Dungeons and Dragons all-time high score (do you have scores in that game?). In true 240-owner fashion, I plastered the rear of the car with pinkocommie bumper stickers, including a “Celebrate Diversity” sticker, which attracted the opposite of the attention I wanted. You could have teleported me and that Volvo from Southwest Virginia to Ithaca, New York, and I would have fit in perfectly.

Headlights the size of Mick Jagger's open mouth. Deer wouldn't be "in" these headlights, they'd be vaporized by them.

Regrettably, my entry on this car is short, as its time with me was short. It incurred a massive repair bill when it blew a head gasket at 123,000 miles, 14,000 miles after we had purchased it. About 120,000 on a Volvo is like 15,000 on any other car. Say what you will about 240s (and I’ve said my share), they are damn reliable. Some have been driven past 1,000,000 miles. But reliability endures only if the owner takes care of the car. It seemed the previous owner did not do that. My buddy Shaun and I pulled over when we saw smoke billowing out from behind the car, and, unable to start it, we had to walk along a shoulderless, four-lane highway to the closest place with a phone: Bucko’s Pantry. After we phoned a friend to pick us up, the proprietor pulled up in her Ford Windstar, and screamed, “No loitering!” We explained our situation, and her response was, “No loitering!” What happened next was surreal: she got back into her Windstar, cranked up NPR so loud you could hear it across the parking lot (NPR!), and drove up and down the highway for several minutes. She came back, parked, and barked, “No loitering!” I wonder if she said that when she got home and saw her husband and/or kid sitting on the couch. “Good night, honey!” “No loitering!” The car was towed the next day, and my parents decided not only should I get a cell phone, I’d better get a new car, too.

The first car I owned which I enjoyed driving... in a straight line.

1997 Nissan Maxima GXE.Around 2000, my sister and I both had a bit of money we’d inherited from various great-uncles, so it was foreseeable I could get a non-Volvo. Hooray! Perhaps years of romantic/sexual frustration would be at an end (or maybe I was just a dork who rarely left his dorm room… eh, it’s up for debate)! After test driving a Ford Contour (crap), a Dodge Stratus (Crappus severus), and a Chrysler Cirrus (deus ex crappina), I chose a ’97 Nissan Maxima with 49,000 miles on it. A dealer had added wood trim and leather to the interior, and it still stank of new car. Then I pressed the pedal on what Ward’s still considers the best V6 in the world, the Nissan VQ. I was in heaven. That car growled like a 14-year-old boy cut off in the buffet line. I timed 0 to 60 several times, albeit crudely, and the engine was broken in enough to get me there in under seven seconds. Acura’s 307-horsepower TL has to strain to manage that. It wasn’t the fastest car in the world by any means, but it was the fastest I’d ever owned. I loved it.

I put about 75,000 miles on the Maxima. I owned it for the rest of my college years, and well into my first “real” job as a police and courts reporter for a daily newspaper in Southern Virginia. When you’re a reporter, you drive everywhere. Not once did I ever have a serious problem with this car. Not once did I have a regular maintenance bill that killed my bank account (when you’re a reporter, your bank account is already near death). Even when the car was seven years old, it still drew compliments. Sometimes, I wish I still owned it. My current commuter car is rather embarrassing (I will reveal make and model in a different post… I think I might lose all three of my readers if I mention it too early), and beating up that Max in Northern Virginia stop-and-go nonsense would be much more fun.

That is, until I remember how it handled. Many Maxima enthusiasts will threaten to stab you with their gelled-up hair and decapitate you with their upside-down and backwards golf visors if you refer to the Maxima as a family car and not a “four-door sports car.” But undeniably, it is a family car, and that’s very apparent when you take to a road such as the Blue Ridge Parkway. While my Max was bliss in a straight line, it was not happy when cornering. This was thanks to front-heavy weight distribution combined with front-wheel drive (if I get a chance to pilot a 2010 Maxima, I’ll be looking for this, because the layout has not changed). Imagine buying a brand new carton of ice cream, and as soon as you get home, trying to shove the scoop into that ice cream. Kinda like going at marble with a cotton swab. Same thing here. You can feel the whole car wobble through the turn, even if you’ve braked hard just before, and once it’s outta that corner, it’s like unbuttoning your pants after Thanksgiving. “Whew,” the car seems to gasp.

If the cornering issue exists still, Nissan had better consider making this an all-wheel drive car if it wants to compete with the dazzling, new Acura TL and the near-perfect BMW 3-series, the latter of which has spent nearly 20 consecutive years on Car and Driver’s 10 Best List and may be one of the best cars ever made. Nissan has already cut off one ball by making a continuously variable transmission the only option (though it does have paddle shifters). There’s no need for the company responsible for the Z and the GT-R to make a light beer car.

Autophiles said the front end looked like a cheshire cat. Clearly, the CVT engineering came from the Mad Hatter.

2003 Nissan Murano SL AWD. I left the newspaper industry in hopes of breaking into TV journalism. That didn’t work out, but that’s another story. I started graduate school at Syracuse University to study broadcast journalism. Syracuse is famous for lots of things: Dinosaur BBQ, Ernie Davis, and snow. Lots and lots of snow. So my parents and I thought I should trade in the Maxima for something with all wheel drive. I looked at the Subaru Forester XT, the Land Rover Freelander, and finally, the new Nissan Murano. I bought the sunlit copper-on-black Murano about two months before leaving for New York. I picked the Murano for its uncanny cornering, Maxima-ish acceleration (thanks to a 0.5 liter bigger version of the VQ), comfortable seating, and great sound system. It also had what I thought at the time was awesome: a continuously variable transmission which adapted to my driving habits for optimal performance and fuel economy. My dad got behind the wheel two days after I bought it, and it was hard to get the keys away from him.

Driving it back from the dealership was one of the most memorable drives I’ve ever had. No one had a Murano in Southside Virginia. No one. Not that I saw, anyway, and I spent my days driving all over Henry, Pittsylvania, and Halifax counties, and down into Caswell and Person counties in North Carolina, gathering news stories. So on that drive and many others after, this car stopped people dead in their tracks. Its “sculpture in motion” design won over many, and also drew the ire of a few as well (they were mostly four-cylinder Accord and Camry drivers, so I ignored their opinions). It was sensationally quiet inside, and had a light exhaust note that reminded me of its premium cousin, the Infiniti FX35.

In the nuclear winter cold of Syracuse, often well below zero, the Murano always started. It busted through snow and did fairly well on ice (though even a Hummer H1 with studded tires is no true defense against the dangers of ice). Regaining control in skids was a cinch.

I kept this car for more than five years and over 100,000 miles. My wife and I went on our first date in this car, I drove to our wedding in this car, and I carted around our first child in it. If it hadn’t started to misbehave, it’s foreseeable I might still own it.

The CVT was the first thing to go. You’d step on the gas, and nothing would happen for several seconds. Then the tires would chirp and the car would take off. Just a liiiiiiitle dangerous. The most inexpensive estimate I got for repairing this was $5,500; this was never repaired. The CD player stopped accepting CDs. The oil pan started leaking. Parts inside started to fall off. My wife found the back seat stupidly uncomfortable. We couldn’t fit in the growing amount of baby debris we schlepped around when traveling from our home outside Washington, D.C., back down to Southwest Virginia to see family (the 2009+ Muranos have even smaller trunks!). The cost of replacing the 18” tires skyrocketed. I felt like I was driving a car made for a National Lampoon movie. I fell pray to its sexy design and performance, and had forgotten this was the first year for the Murano, and it was filled with more bugs than Windows ME. I should have sprung for an ’04. Click and Clack would have smacked me “upside the head.” Interestingly, one of my motoring heroes, Jeremy Clarkson, loves the ’03 to ’07 Muranos (there was no ’08), and I thought he would have branded a car like this something like “Hector.”

You can’t ignore the fire the Murano lit. It was the first crossover people wanted. I’d wager the Pontiac Aztek was the first crossover, technically, in the way we think about them today, but that car was as appealing as a snot smoothie (as was most of Pontiac’s lineup at the time). You got the utility of an SUV with the driveability of a car. Now nearly every car company worth its salt has a crossover. But not Smart. I think Smart and the fools who poisoned this country with that mobile casket should stop now and not develop anything else, not even a crossover. Sorry. I had to bring to the forefront my total bias against that miserable, motorized ladybug.

Welcome to The Torque Retort

This was all my wife’s idea. I love my wife.

By trade, I am a technical writer. This is one of the most profitable trades a writer can enter, as opposed to teaching or journalism. I support one of the most crucial IT projects in the federal government, in fact. But often what technical writing doesn’t permit is creativity. My job is as exciting as a plain rice cake with a lukewarm tap water chaser, served by Bob Newhart in a cafĂ© in Kansas.

I grew up loving cars. At age 11, I had subscriptions to Car and Driver,Automobile, and Road & Track. I had horsepower figures memorized like Shakespeare monologues. I knew what a limited slip differential was when I entered the sixth grade. For this, I blame my father, who grew up loving cars as well. I’ve married into a family with a nearly 80-year-old drag racing uncle and two Mustang restoration projects. Our blood type is 10w-40.

That segues perfectly back to my wife. She loves cars, too, more than most pink, purple and sparkle-covered girls. Together, we’re the proud parents of an amazing 20-month-old boy. If you’re a parent, you’ll understand this prevents me from working on the novel I started almost seven years ago. My wife sensed my malaise stemming from a lack of creative writing in my life and figured blogging would satisfy my craving while saving time for shoving apple sauce into our son’s mouth and scrubbing off said apple sauce in the bathtub (off my son and me). It was obvious about what I would write. I spend a ridiculous amount of time on, trying to decide what our next car purchase will be in a few years.

So, here’s what I plan for this blog. I’m going to write about cars I know. I’m going to test drive cars whenever I can. I’m going to write detailed reviews — and include video of those reviews, hopefully. Being a new dad and a full-time commuter (I am in my car sometimes four hours a day), I’m going to concentrate on cars that get your blood pumping and can hold a stroller in the trunk. I’m going to post as often as I can.

I’m going to take suggestions from you and all my readers about what I can include and what I should nix. My next post will be about the cars of my past. Then I’ll talk about the vehicles in my life now. In the meantime, I’m going to get the word out via Twitter and Facebook and through this site.

Thanks so much for reading. Come back soon.