Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Big Man Can't Fit: Finding a Fun Car for a Big and Tall Man

Meet Kris, one of the more stand-up and genuine men my wife and I have met during our four-year stint up here in Northern Virginia. With our high opinion of Kris, we here at The Torque Retort, all 2.2 of us, would like to help Kris, who is 6'7", find something for when his Pontiac Aztek expires. Don't comment here with all the jokes about that car, he's heard them before. It did come with a dash-integrated ice chest, you know. As Clarkson said once, "Not even a Maybach has that!" It also fits Kris' frame perfectly. A Maybach might be able to do that, but since there were none available at the Washington Auto Show, we had to try more pedestrian vehicles.

When it came time for Kris to get a car, he tried and tried until his tryer was all tried out, trying to find some information about a car with expansive headroom. He tried a Jeep. No. In fact, he tried all kinds of SUVs. No. Convertibles were out of the question, because his head stuck out above the roofline. So he tried the Aztek, and it worked better than anything else. He's at 60,000 miles now, and on an American car that age, it's wise to start considering the options for the inevitable.

First, we went to Ford, my current favorite American manufacturer. We tried the Edge, and while he had room to fit inside, that was all he did, fit. Like a size 10 foot fits in a size 10 shoe. The Fusion, though smaller, seemed to have a better cabin, but while his noggin wasn't in danger, his right kneecap was. The Taurus proved to be the best fit, but Kris still had to push the seat all the way back to enjoy the Taurus' unreasonably orgasmic interior.

Kris in the Fusion
Kris in the Edge

Finding nothing to write to Grandma about, we moved over to General Motors. The first thing my wife and I thought would definitely fit Kris' frame was the Big Papa of American Excess, The Rolling Pimp Cup, Goldtooth the Assassin - the Cadillac Escalade. That thing has to be amazingly roomy, right? The first time I saw an Escalade I thought you'd need a building and zoning permit to wash it. Turns out, not so much. It didn't fit Kris much better than the Ford Edge. The Escalade's less brash cousin, the Suburban, fit Kris the same way. And then, something happened. Kris stepped into a fully loaded Equinox, and with minimal fuss, Kris fit perfectly. The Equinox, in my opinion, provides a level of excitement comparable to that of a china hutch, but if Kris were to drive one and find he wanted to purchase it, I'd be happy for him.

A Winner
Not a Winner

I really wanted to find Kris something that would provide some sportier handling than some of the others cars we found that fit him decently. I sat him down in a sexy-ass Cadillac CTS Sportwagon. Or, I tried. I'm glad my paltry 6'2" body fit, because I'm dying to try one of these bad boys. Kris, on the other hand, may have to ride on the roof. He must have felt like soda escaping a shook-up can when he was free of the Caddy's grasp. And, to be fair, even I was beginning to get uncomfortable inside it. If the cockpit got any smaller, I'd cross it off my list altogether. As an aside, Cadillac should consider offering Recaros on this CTS model, too, not just the V. You shouldn't feel like you're sitting on a pile of rocks in a Cadillac.

On our way to the imports downstairs, Kris decided to try the new Buick Lacrosse. Generally, I think Buicks are eunuchs, but this Lacrosse could set the old marque back on the less-traveled-by path the '63 Riviera started down. Kris fit quite well inside the Lacrosse. So, two wins for GM. And great job, GM, on that Buick's interior, too. Too bad the rest of your product line's interior is garbage, save for the CTS. Let's see some consistency. If you want to run neck-and-neck with the Europeans and the Japanese, you have to build better than all of them. No excuses, no other options, period. Did any of you sit inside an HHR before you let the first one out the door? What the hell were you people thinking? Do I have a right to talk to you this way? Yes, because you took my tax dollars.

The first thing we saw when we got to Import Land were all the panty-waist electrics and rice-cake-and-tap-water hybrids. I could not wait to get Kris inside a Prius, though, because I remembered the few times I sat in Priuses, I found them quite roomy. Yes. Roomy for me. Pictures and video below.

Kris Evacuates the Prius
"No, you can't leave! Drive me more!
You need your sleep!"

While the Prius' reputation as a cavernous granola mobile was proved fallible, we did find Kris fit well inside the Honda Civic Hybrid, and surprisingly well inside the Wheego Whip.

The Civic Hybrid takes nearly 13 seconds to get to 60. Just thought I'd add that. The Wheego can't even hit 60 flat out. While I am thrilled there are cars out there guys like Kris can fit in, that should be only part of the equation when looking for a car. There were no truly exciting cars with ample interior room. Where is it written a sports car or a sporty sedan has to be cramped (the S63 and Alpina B7 being two notable exceptions)? Again, no, we didn't drive any of them, but I think it's safe to assume no one with white knuckles will be driving a Wheegobutnotsowell. But it isn't all about what one blogger thinks. Here's hoping whenever Kris finds a car that fits, it does everything he wants it to do.

Auto Show Surprises

So sorry it took me so long to get to my Washington Auto Show posts. I know there were throngs and throngs of you at your computers, each night, staring at The Torque Retort's home page, clicking the Refresh button furiously, praying to God the post would come soon so meaning would return to your life and you could get back to the finishing touches on your Torque Retort shrine that kicked your daughters out of their own bedrooms. Well, I appreciate it.

Anyway, I'm going to start with some crazy things I discovered at the show, and then I'll move on to the much-anticipated (I overheard some teenage girls on the Metro talking about it, like, ooooh my gaaaaaaawd I can't wwaaaaaaaaaaait to see what caaaarr he fits iiiiiin, and at least one older man telling his wife to bookmark it in Chrome) Big Man Can't Fit post!

Camaro Interior: Epic Fail

The first surprise is really a disappointment. General Motors, with billions of Americans' tax dollars, is continuing to build cheap cars. It's no secret the Cobalt is just Cavalier Part Deux, without Charlie Sheen, and the HHR is an abortion on wheels. Regardless, lots of people have been menstruating all about the 2010 Camaro, even me. But now I'm hyperventilating a little less.

Yes, from the outside, I would like to lick it. But sit inside, and you're surrounded by the same chintz GM has been forcing down our throats for years. Some cool gauges beneath the center stack are the only redeeming feature of this car's interior. The interior trim on the door flaps like a Caribbean shanty-town in a hurricane. Plus, there is no visibility. None. The latest gaggle of "The Biggest Loser" contestants could be crossing the street in front of you and you'd see none of them.

I sat in a 2SS equipped with the Transformers package, which means if the All Spark shocked this car, Bumblebee would not be an AutoBot; he'd be a box of Tupperware. The problem with these auto shows, though, is you can't drive the cars, so maybe the 400/426 horsepower (automatic/manual tranny, respectively) would change my tune. But 90% of the time you own a car, you're immersed in the interior. Actually, GM was offering auto show attendees an opportunity to drive the Camaro 2SS and other GM fare around the Washington Convention Center, but three inches of snow made the insurance weenies pee their pants, so that car was pulled from the test drive lineup.

Mercedes G550: I Can See Clearly Now

Would I buy one of these? No. It's hideous, boxier than a U-Haul franchise, and it sucks gas like Truman Capote swilled scotch. But here's this SUV's likely most redeeming feature. I have never experienced better visibility in any vehicle. Ever. Not even a Hummer H2. The seats were perfect, too, like Recaros. So, congratulations are in order for M-B making a true command center for daring off-roaders everywhere negotiating the junglish terrors of Malibu.

Chevrolet Corvette: Slightly Less Fail

435 horsepower and nearly 30 miles to the gallon on the highway could be why I'm still paying attention to Chevrolet (that, and I still want to see a truck as incredibly cool as the '72 K20 longbed 4x4). I can't think of any vehicle that does that. The Lexus LS600hL hybrid can't pull that off and it makes 438. Some little twit cars lauded for their fuel economy can't touch that figure. And my God, that manual tranny. Granted I only ran through the gears on a Z06 model sitting still, but the shifts were so fluid.

Unfortunately, the genius Corvette - around since 1953 - has one problem. You must be Calista Flockhart to drive one. I do need to lose some weight, but I didn't have this problem in the Camaro. There was nowhere for my legs to go other than into holy-crap-I'm-sitting-down-and-I-need-to-get-all-40daysand40nights-on-a-urinal mode. I don't understand this, because the Corvette is a very wide car (which is why it handles so damn great), so there should be more room for those of us who take up a little more room. Still, if I somehow came to own one of these Z06s or the raucous ZR1, I might take on Calista's nutrition plan just to run through those gears through the Appalachian Mountains.

Ford Taurus SHO: Holy Crap the Taurus is Awesome and Costs Nearly $50,000

OK, this car is now neck-and-neck with the Infiniti G37x of family-friendly fist-pumpers I have got to try. I did not expect much more than the '89 Mercury my parents had for a few years and at best something that would make the Chevrolet Impala sweat. What I found was E-class and 5-series cuddling, combined with The. Best. Interior. I've. Ever. Sat. In. The Impala is having a panic attack.

Yes, I am quite excited about the 365 ponies and respectable gas mileage. But it's also big inside. Very big. I could do the whole I'm-a-rapper-and-I'm-spreading-my-legs-in-a-chair pose while trolling through Northern Virginia traffic. After getting in the cockpit and closing the door, all outside noise is virtually extinguished. Then you're treated to a center stack that slopes down at about a 35-degree angle, putting all A/C controls within uncanny reach. The two-tone leather is quite supple and doesn't feel slippery.

I'm not crazy about the gadget-and-power-laden Taurus costing nearly $50,000. I could pick up a barely-used 550i or even an AMG E55 for that price. That's not going to keep me from giving it a go. Regardless of the price, I'm sure this will become Ford's halo car.

Wheego Whip: I Don't Care if It's So Damn Big Inside, It Sucks

The Wheego Whip can go 59 miles an hour and can go 50 miles before it needs to get plugged back in to coal-fueled electricity. I don't think I need to say any more than that to describe my overall opinion of this car. If you can even call it a car. Dare I say it, the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 is overall a more environmentally-friendly choice.

Still, practically all that bubble you see in the picture can be absorbed by a person. I have more headroom in that car than I have in my own Ford Flex. And the Flex is dang cavernous.

But claiming the car has great ergonomics is like putting powdered sugar on rotten fish.

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.