Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Western Automotive Journalists Media Days 2015

Last week - April 6th, 7th & 8th - was the Western Automotive Journalists Media Days in and around Monterey, California. Monday was check-in day; that evening there was a showing of the movie "Rush." I've seen the flic in a theater thanks to Scott Brown at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles so I skipped seeing it again. Instead I had a nice meal with my friend Doug and his daughter Shannon.

Every year I take some pictures of the cars arrayed for us on the first day. Here are the pictures:

 Charger Pursuit
 Lexus RC 350 F Sport

 VW Golf R
 Corvette Z71
 Mustang EcoBoost
 Subaru BRZ & Scion FRS
 BMW i8 

 Jaguar F-Type

 Toyota Mirai Hydrogen

Tuesday is the day I enjoy the most - driving a variety of vehicles on Monterey area roads. The roster of cars was extensive, listed alphabetically they were (there's an asterisk after the cars I drove):
Acura ILX & MDX; BMW i8, 228i, M4, X5M & X6M; Chevrolet SS Sedan & Corvette Z51; Dodge Challenger Shaker*, Charger ScatPack & Charger Pursuit; Fiat 500 Abarth Hatchback*; Ford Mustang EcoBoost, Mustang GT* & Edge; Honda HR-V*; Infiniti Q50 Sport Tech Deluxe & QX80; Jaguar F-Type; Kia Forte Koup*, Sorento & Soul EV*; Land Rover Discovery* & Range Rover Supercharged; Mazda6*, CX-5 & Mazda3; Mercedes Benz S550 Coupe & GLA250*; Mitsubishi Outlander Sport; Nissan Murano Platinum AWD; Subaru BRZ & Legacy; Toyota Camry XSE*, Prius, Sienna & Mirai Hydrogen; Volvo V60 Cross Country, XC60; VW Golf Sportwagen TDI*, Golf R & Touareg TDI. There may have been a few others that were listed for the track but were also in the road group.

No I didn't drive everything. And I didn't go on the off-road course (I'm just not that into off-roading). I'll give a short synopsis of the ones I did drive - we only drove each one for maybe 5-10 miles. Starting with the Chevy SS Sedan. I doubt that Chevy has sold or will sell too many of these but if you're a bowtie guy and you can afford it ($45,745 base) it should be on your list. It's got a 6.2-liter V8, 415 hp, rear-wheel-drive and available with a 6-speed manual transmission. Even this Ford guy loved the sounds (and acceleration).

Next up was a Dodge Challenger Shaker. I've always had mixed feelings about the Challenger. It's a good looking, retro styled car. But it is big - curb weight is over 2 tons. But damn the Hemi makes power and torque, and it sounds so good.

I've driven a Fiat 500 Abarth before but now they've put a 6-speed automatic in one. The 5-speed stick is more fun but the automatic is almost as good and with paddle shifters you can still play boy racer.

It's been a while since I've driven a Mustang so of course I had to get into the GT. The 5.0 V8 is my kind of engine - 435 hp and 400 lb ft of torque. Send the power through the 6-speed manual to the independant rear axle and hold on. Now if I only had $33,000.

The Honda HR-V is all new and under an embargo to describe how it drives until the end of the month. Let's just say that if you've driven a Honda recently you won't be disappointed. The HR-V is Honda's smallest Crossover. It is based on the Fit platform. You can get it with either a 6-speed manual or a CVT (depending on model).

I drove two Kia models, a Forte Koup and a Soul EV. The Forte Koup is just a nice coup; well equipped and well built. It is not a sports car but a "sporty" car. The Soul EV (electric vehicle) is, well it's an electric Soul. I've like the Soul from the time it was first introduced. Like most EVs range is a problem but EVs are gaining in popularity for around town driving.

Okay I admit it, I am not a SUV guy and I have little use for one, especially one with AWD. But a Land Rover Discovery is more than some off-road brute, it really is a luxury vehicle that just happens to be a SUV. Driving the Discovery you'd be hard pressed to tell that it is a 4-cylinder. With 240 turbocharged horsepower and a 9-speed automatic transmission it feels pretty darn quick.

There were two Mazda6's availabe to drive - a technology model and a more base model. So of course I chose the base model with the manual transmission. I have to say that I am not really taken with Mazda's styling but I was smitten with the Mazda6. The 184 hp SKYACTIV four-cylinder is so smooth that it could have been a V6. The 6-speed manual was perfect. The ride was firm but supple. All in all a really nice 4-door car.

Mercedes has entered the premium compact SUV market with the GLA250. It's a M-B, what do you expect? But you know, if the GLA250 isn't enough for you there is an AMG GLA45 that ups the hp from 208 to 355.

This was my first time in a Subaru BRZ. Quick and fun to drive. But maybe I'm not a kid enough anymore? The ride was choppy and for us older folks getting in and out would become a drag. It still put a smile on my face though.

What can you say about a Toyota Camry? Well-built, reliable and dull? Dull is a state of mind. If dull is being one of the best 4-door sedans available is that a bad thing? I drove a XSE, the top of the line Camry. Dull? No, just very, very pleasant.

Last but definitely not least was a VW Golf Sportwagen TDI. With its 1.8-liter, 170 hp, turbo clean diesel it wasn't the fastest car I drove but you cannot beat its 43 mpg rating. VW's diesels aren't your grandfather's diesels - they are quiet and clean. If I was still working and commuting I would consider a VW diesel.

Tuesday night is our dinner night. The Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa put together a very good dinner. And then we had our keynote speaker, one of my least favorite people, none other than Bob Lutz. Lutz did not disappoint, or maybe he did.

He started off by talking about the poor state of education in this country. He's right about that but then he proceeded to blame the teachers and their unions. It's always the unions isn't it Bob?

Bob went after electric vehicles snarling that if it wasn't for government mandates there wouldn't be any because every company that makes one loses money on it. Yeah Bob, government mandates are a terrible thing. The car companies, heck all companies, would always do the right thing anyway right Bob? I mean no government ever had to force a car company to install safety or pollution control equipment right Bob?

Bob talked about General Motors. At one point he said, and I'm paraphrasing, that "they" would cut corners on anything except safety. I guess you haven't heard about an ignition switch problem right Bob? You know, the one that GM knew about and covered up for years. The one that caused many accidents and some deaths. Yeah Bob, GM would never compromise safety.

Bob fielded a question about the UAW taking some responsibility for tanking the Big Three. You know, those greedy unionists. You know, the ones that got millions in golden parachutes when things went south. Oh wait, those were executives.

Frankly Bob Lutz should take a hint from General MacArthur and "fade away."

But enough about Lutz, let's get back to cars and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Mazda Raceway is a great track with a ton of history. I've been there a number of times and driven some decent laps. This year for some reason it intimidated me.

I started the day off okay doing drive arounds in a M-B CLS63 AMG with an instructor from Hooked On Driving. The instructor takes 3 potential drivers out at a time; first he drives a couple of laps to show us the line then each driver takes laps. First problem was getting into the back seat wearing a helmet. The CLS roof line slopes pretty drastically and I walloped my helmet getting in. Rattled me a bit. When it was my turn to drive the combination of bad hearing (I'm getting hearing aids soon) and the helmet kept me from hearing most of what the instructor was trying to tell me. I did hear that I was missing my apexes and that I'd developed some bad habits.

The end result was that I drove just one car on the track, the Subaru BRZ. I thought I was doing pretty good, not great decent. And then someone in the Scion FRS came up behind me and passed me.

Part of the problem was a lack of low performance cars for the track. I wasn't alone in that feeling. Another member commented that he likes to start the day in lower powered cars to get in his "groove" before moving up the horsepower ladder. My loss because there were some great cars.

Again alphabetically they were:
Alfa Romeo 4C; BMW X5M & X6M; Chevrolet SS Sedan, Corvette Z51 & Camaro 1LE; Dodge Viper, Challenger Hellcat, Challenger Shaker, Charger Hellcat, Charger Scatpack & Charger Pursuit; Ford Mustang EcoBoost & Mustang GT; Fiat 500 Abarth; Honda CR-Z (breathed on by HPD); Jaguar F-Type; Lexus RC-F; Mazda3 & Mazda6; M-B GLA45 AMG & CLS63 AMG; Mitsubishi Evo; Subaru BRZ; Scion FRS; and VW Golf R.

I snapped some pics of cars in the paddock and entering the pits. Here they are:
 Challenger Hellcat
 Alfa Romeo 4C
 Jaguar F-Type
 Honda CR-Z HPD
 Fiat 500 Abarth
 Dodge Viper
 Camaro SS 1LE
 Alfa 4C
 Charger Hellcat
 Mustang GT
 Lexus RC-F
 Jaguar Type-F
 Challenger Hellcat engine
Jon Rosner in the Viper.

Every single car on the track was street legal. Some are a little noisy (good noise) but legal. Yet two or three of them were black flagged for being too noisy on the track - neighbors might complain. I have a hard time understanding how a car can be too noisy on the track but okay on the street. 

I especially want to thank all the manufacturers who brought their cars to our event. It takes a lot of nerve to unleash a group of wanna be racers into cars with so much horsepower and worth collectively probably close to a million. Thankfully nothing was returned damaged that I am aware of.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What's going on at the Bureau of Automotive Repair?

I've heard some rumors about goings on at the Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR). But first a caveat - I was employed by the BAR and the Department of Consumer Affairs. I also sat on the Inspection and Maintenance Review Committee for almost 9 years.

One rumor involves the STAR Certification program. This is how the BAR describes the program: “STAR stations are Smog Check stations that meet higher performance standards established by the Bureau of Automotive Repair. Some STAR stations are licensed to perform only tests, while others are licensed to perform both tests and repairs. The station is required to post a sign on the services it performs. State law requires that a percentage of vehicles have their Smog Check Inspections performed at a STAR station. It has been controversial since its start.

Sounds like a good idea right? In principle maybe but in action it is very different. There have been many complaints about the system. Here's an example: A technician did not have his license posted as required by law. A BAR employee deletes the technician from the smog machine (in the "old days" we would have given the technician say 24 hours to post his license). A few days later the technician posted his license and was re-installed into the smog machine. Fine right? No; now the station is no longer STAR Certified because the technician is new and no longer has a history for the STAR program to analyze. Dumb; same technician as before and his history should be continued. But the STAR program doesn't recognize this.

This should be easy to correct but evidently it is not. The smog station must file a formal appeal, an appeal that will go before an Administrative Law Judge. Now here is where it gets strange, at least according to my sources who tell me the Attorney General's Office will not take the cases to hearing because they do not believe the BAR's STAR program is defensible. For almost two years the appeals have been building up but never going forward. My sources state that there are about 300 appeals sitting and waiting to be heard.

So what is the BAR going to do? Logically if your attorney, and the AG's Office is the BAR's attorney, doesn't think you have a defensible position shouldn't you drop all the cases and reinstate the Smog Stations' certifications? Not the BAR. My sources said that a limited-term Air Quality Representative has been hired specifically to defend the Star Program. Seems to me that if the AG's office cannot understand the program well enough to defend it then maybe - just maybe - the program is the problem. But that's just me.

On another front I heard that a former BAR employee, Albert Flores, Jr., won a lawsuit against the BAR for over $1.5 million. I hope to have more on this soon but for now here is a synopsis from the law firm that handled the case, Nearsham & Kramer LLP: "On August 28, 2014, following a 3 ½ week trial, a Sacramento Jury awarded NKLLP client Albert Flores, Jr. $1.565 Million in damages against his former employer, the California Dept. of Consumer Affairs Bureau of Automotive Repair.  Mr. Flores was awarded damages for Disability Discrimination, Failure to Provide a Reasonable Accommodation and Failure to Prevent Discrimination."

I have to wonder what happened to the BAR employees (managers) who treated Mr. Flores so badly? But if the BAR follows past patterns absolutely nothing was done to punish them. Heck, maybe they were even promoted. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The General will cut vehicle warranties from 100,000 miles to 60,000. Same old GM?

General Motors today announced that they will reduce their vehicle warranty by 40,000 miles - from the current 100,000 mile powertrain warranty to 60,000 miles in 2016.

"Through research, we have determined that when purchasing a new vehicle, included maintenance and warranty rank low on the list of reasons why consumers consider a particular brand over another," reads the dealer memo, sent by Chevrolet vice president Brian Sweeney and GMC vice president Duncan Aldred. My take on this comment reinforces my opinion that warranties are nothing more than a marketing tool.

Ignore the PR bull; what this says to me is, "The 100,000 mile warranty seemed like a good idea but it cost us more than it was worth." Why do I say this? Yes some of GM's competitors do not have 100,000 mile powertrain warranties but so what? If the warranty did not cost GM there was no reason to end it.

If a warranty is a neutral in the car buying decision, and if your vehicles have a lower than average warranty cost per vehicle, there is no reason to shorten the warranty. On the other hand, if it is a neutral and your warranty costs per vehicle are higher than average, you have two choices - cut your warranty or improve your products. 

I have no secret info on why General Motors slashed their powertrain warranty but I also don't see any reason for it other than costs. If you have faith in your products GM, reinstate the 100,000 mile powertrain warranty.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

While you weren't looking.

Autonomous cars, you know those self-driving cars that are being tested on a road near you, will save mankind. The proponents of self-driving cars say they will eliminate crashes and auto deaths. Over 30,000 people die every year on US highways so that means self-driving cars could save over 30,000 people every single year. A laudable achievement.

But, and there is always a but in order for a complete elimination of auto deaths there will have to be 100% self-driving vehicles on our roads. So while all the car collectors worry about smog inspections, ethanol in gasoline, and all the laws that seem to be aimed at older cars, the high tech industry developed a plan that will take not only the older cars off the highways and byways but all vehicles that require a driver.

How many deaths is your personal freedom worth? I don't have an answer; I don't wish death to anyone, especially not in some horrific car crash,but I don't want to just sit back and enjoy the ride either. I enjoy driving. So what is the answer?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Who is connecting to your car?

Nick Sugimoto, Senior Program Director o Honda's Silicon Valley Lab (HSVL) was the guest speaker at the recent Western Automotive Journalist's February meeting. Honda, like a half dozen or so other auto makers, is interested in the connectivity of vehicles.

I love technology but I also fear the spread of it. I've expressed this before. All of the connectivity might actually be a portal to hack into a car's computer system. Right now any hacking seems to be at the prank level; you know hackers showing that it is possible.

Before dinner I was speaking with a couple of educators. One mentioned something about using the Tire Pressure Monitoring System to hack into a car's computer. What? Intrigued, I Googled the topic. It's true! Up came this site: http://www.networkworld.com/article/2231495/cisco-subnet/defcon---hacking-tire-pressure-monitors-remotely.html. Just one more thing to worry about.

The proponents of all this techology envision a world of autonomous cars zooming down an Interstate at maximum speed, bumper to bumper. They say that autonomous cars will eliminate auto accidents because the computers will see to that. But are computers infallible? No because they are created and programed by humans.

There was talk at our table about situations where the computer might have to decide between to fatal collisions, kind of a Sophie's Choice. While the idea might be appropriate for a philosophy class I'm not sure the public at large is ready for a "who should die, the mother or the baby" discussion.

So what is my fear about all these computer controls on our cars? Not that some geek will hack in and change your music choices. More along what would happened if an enemy decided to disable a few vehicles on our heaviest traveled routes. Have you seen what has happened to this nation during the recent snow storms? Trucking has been devastated. Now imagine an enemy blockading strategic highways by disabling a mess of computer controlled vehicles.

Think about all those autonomous cars speeding along at 100 mph. Now think of they mayhem if one car - ONE CAR - loses its connectivity while in a group of 20, 50, or 100 other connected cars.

What bothers me is that security seems to be an after thought of all the car companies. "Don't worry, we'll tackle that later" seems to be their attitude. I think we have already seen that these things have to be designed in at the onset, not fiddled with later. When reliability was an after thought the Big 3 almost went under. Let's make computer security part of the design, not something tacked on later.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Musick has Charms to soothe a savage Breast"

Or at least it has the potential to soothe an irate commuter. That is the theory behind Music For Commuting Volumes 7-12 (and Music For Commuting Volumes 1-6 that preceded it) a 3-CD (the CDs are Monday/Tuesday, Wednesday/Thursday, and Friday) box set from Ken Elkinson. Elkinson composed and performs all of the music.

I am not a music critic nor expert. And I do not commute very far any more. For me music is a very personal experience. I listen to music that suits my mood. My mood is not anger very much anymore.

There was a time when I was an angry commuter; there was a time I was angry with the world. I was aggressive and did stupid things. Music did nothing to change my attitude.

Elkinson's music is the type of new-age ambient music that has been played in every spa I've ever been in for a massage. It is relaxing. For me maybe too relaxing. When I've received a massage and ethereal music is played I fall into a dream like world between sleep and awake. This is good when I am getting a massage but not exactly what I want when I am surrounded by deadly weapons travelling at a rapid rate of speed.

Would this music calm an irate driver? Maybe, but I suspect most angry, aggressive drivers would be the last ones to slip one of Elkinson's CDs into the slot. Music For Commuting is for those who want (the operative word is want) to unwind on the drive to or from work. The music allows one to free their mind, to not focus on ones' problems. That can be a good thing as long as you can still drive. You wouldn't get to work all keyed up anticipating what may happen; or conversely you wouldn't get home and start screaming about how stupid so-and-so was at work. I imagine that if you did breathing exercises in sync with Music it would be very calming.

For me, Music For Commuting Volumes 7-12 doesn't work. It's just not me, not in a car. I might put it on at home, maybe as background music while I drink my morning coffee on the patio.

Have a listen and see if it suits you -

Elkinson's music is available for purchase at iTunes and his own web site, http://www.kenelkinson.com/

Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 Grand National Roadster Show - Fairplex in Pomona

Rode down to LA with my friend Rick and we both stayed at Mark's. Went to the GNRS on Saturday and Sunday. Both days were beautiful. Large number of cars of all types. Great show.


Jimmie Johnson's LT1, 1971 Corvette. Just about the most tasteful resto rod I've seen.

Hard to see but this is perhaps the strangest engine in the show. It is a Pontiac slant 4-cylinder (essentially half a 326 V8).

Twin grille 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.