The reason that the Lexus IS convertible is better than the BMW 3, The Volvo C70, and the Intiniti G convertible is that it is the only one in the group with a spare tire. These are all grand touring machines. They are meant for weekend drives in beautiful areas. They all have low profile tires and the fronts and backs are not the same size. Do you really think you are going to find one of these tires in stock if you rub a curb while 100 miles form home? More importantly, the Lexus let’s you pass down valuable car/life lessons to the next generation as seen in the picture. Cheers!
Thanks to all the Lexus fans at Linked In who played the guessing game. The mystery part was the parking brake of an LFA. The second photo shows it a little better next to its big brother the “braking” caliper.
Hockey fans will know this, but for those not part of that religion, a “Gordie Howe Hat-trick” is when a player has a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game. They are rarer than you might imagine. In fact, Mr. Hockey himself only did it twice, and he played for 72 consecutive seasons. Being a fan of hockey, but an expert when it comes to all things automotive, I recently decided to see if I could achieve my own “Columnshift Hat-Trick” by triggering a vehicle’s anti-lock brakes, stability control, and traction control all in one drive.
Reckless? Perhaps, but I didn’t jump in my performance car to try this. If I had, I would have had to exceed about 1 G sideways, or more than that in braking. My performance car is a monster and has Fred Flintstone size rear tires and a special differential, so the traction control only comes on in slick conditions, or when I abuse the drivetrain in a way that makes my wallet hurt. So to protect the lives of my fellow Norfolkers, keep my license, and preserve my car and money (not necessarily in that order) I opted out of the performance car. My (ex) wife’s car is so sophisticated that had I tried this the telemetry system would phone Triple-A, alert the local Fire Department of my crash site, and then text my insurance company, (ex) wife, and auto-body shop. So the safety mobile was not an option. That left me with the 2007 Highlander.
Regular fans of my writing, that’s you Mom, know that I have spent a lot of quality time in South-Central New Hampshire. I have fond memories of drifting my Toyota Supra endlessly on the perfectly groomed dirt roads there. So I decided to combine my love of that area with my love of driving and take on the challenge. It turns out that I picked the perfect conditions for this. The dirt roads were frozen underneath, but on top was a couple of inches of what felt, looked, but did not taste like, chocolate ice cream. It acted as a lubricant between the tires and the substrate. The effect was perfect for my needs and desires. I decided to do some exploring first before I tried to trash the car. Using GPS, I looked deeper into the woods than I ever had and decided to see how far I could take my All-Wheel-Drive Highlander and its new snow tires before the trees got too close together or I chickened out and turned back.
The first thing to know about this area is that the signs have meaning, but not directly related to the words printed on them. For example, “Dead-End” can mean “We don’t want you to drive any further”, or it can mean “We don’t cut the brush back anymore, so good luck”, but it almost never means that the road doesn’t continue. On one such alleged dead-end I found myself pointed down-hill at a steep grade and ahead of me the road narrowed from one and a half car’s width to about ¾ of a car’s width. Hmm. Decision time. A glance at the Crackberry showed no cell coverage. In all seriousness I had recently passed a man walking down the road in Wellies, a Crocodile Dundee Hat, and an overcoat carrying a bolt-action rifle with a scope. I didn’t really feel like turning around and passing that dude again. On the other hand if I got the Highlander stuck nose first in a ditch trying to turn around on a steep hill covered in mocha-latte I was going to have to walk up the hill in my Sketchers and make friends with the rifle man and ask if he owned a real man’s truck to help extricate my soccer-mom taxi.
So I turned around and again passed the rifle man, but this time I went real slow and rolled down my passenger window to give him a friendly “Hello !” I figured that even a bad shot could put a round through the back glass, seat, and me, so why pretend to ignore the guy with the Remington? As I approached him the urge to take a picture of the guy came upon me suddenly. My hand actually touched the camera-phone. The feeling was like walking up to the edge of a cliff and leaning over. I’ve never done that, but I bet it feels funny. He didn’t smile, but he also did not chamber a round. Good enough.
After sliding around a bit in the muck, and using the Highlander’s low gears and snow tires to maximum effect, I was starting to feel pretty confident and had impressed myself with my soft-road driving ability. That is when a lady with blue hair passed me headed into the wild in a Prius with NH plates. Pretty emasculating, but on I went. Before I got down to attempting the challenge I had to use “the bathroom.” But there is no such thing out there – normally. I actually came upon a portable toilet at the end of a boat launch road on a beautiful lake. Inside there was a note saying something like “Feel free to use the facilities and if you want to make a donation please leave it in the jar.” I looked for the jar and found it inside the blue water at the bottom of the unit, so I couldn’t donate, and I was bummed out, because I thought this was a cool thing to do.
Did I complete the challenge? Let me just say this; the dashboard icon for the stability control is a yellow triangle with an exclamation point inside. The traction control symbol is two squiggly tire tracks in red. The anti-locks have no idiot light, but the brake pedal vibrates. I’m not sure what the pink skull and crossbones icon was that I saw, but I took it to mean, “Quit while you’re ahead, girlie-man.”
If you want to know my secret back-roads route, e-mail me at John@Columsnhift.com
Part of The Family Part 1
My friend and neighbor, Jim, has an interesting car. It is an ’08. It is in pretty good condition, although he bought it used. Normally, I write about cars, and a car will be play a part in this story. I’ll let you decide as you read along if that is what this is about. Let’s think a little bit about the year ’08. In that year Massachusetts again joined the majority of the country and voted in a new president. Mass. is so predictable that way. There was a huge explosion in Russia that killed many people and is still not really fully explained. There was also a small controversy because during the Olympic Games the US did not dip its flag to the royal box of the host country. The flag of course had 45 stars because the year is 1908. Massachusetts voted Republican again, for Taft succeeding Roosevelt (also a Republican). The explosion was in Tunguska Russia.
Backing up a couple of years to 1906 takes us to a time when James Lehan of Stoughton, MA was running a popular bicycle shop. James was successful partly due to his offering of “Bank-note” financing of the bicycles. James had a hobby collecting a special glass made only on Cape Cod called Sandwich Glass. It was a trip to a Sandwich Glass convention that brought James together with Mr. Henry Ford. Mr. Ford was planning a big introduction in the coming couple of years, the Model T Ford. He knew the car would make or break his company. It would be introduced late in 1908 and the model would drastically change the ratio of cars to people in the US. Mr. Ford was planning to sell his cars direct. Dealerships had not yet been established.
Henry and James hit it off and they found they had some things in common besides a love of glass. Maybe they also discussed their shared Irish heritage. Both were first generation Americans. Eventually the talk turned to their business and they thought they might be able to work together in some way. After some consideration James offered to help Henry get a foothold in the New England market. He made the stunning offer to buy 13 Model T’s for $100.00 each. Thus was started a relationship that would result in James Lehan of Stoughton being one of the first car dealers.
James was successful in the car business and continued to also offer bicycles. Eventually, the business took on a new name that better described it, Lehan’s Garage. James would have many car lines in addition to Ford including Stanley Steamer and Tucker. In later years, the tag line for the business became “The World’s Oldest Ford Dealership.” As he entered this new world of dealing in autos, James wanted something special for himself. He found it in a 1908 Buick Roadster. The roadster was sportier than most of the cars on the road at the time. It was a 2+1 seater. That means two seats up front and a “Mother-In-Law Seat” in the back. The car had all the modern conveniences. For example, kerosene lamps, Shat-R-Proof glass windscreen, and oil pans that were mounted to the sides of the car. These were to be removed and placed under the car when parked to catch the oil that dripped down. That oil was not a leak, but rather the oil that sprayed from the open valve areas at the top of the engine. Valve covers were not yet invented.
James loved the car and used it as a daily driver. The years passed and James lived well until he passed away at the age of 77 in 1945. James’ son, Ralph had become the proprietor of Lehan’s Garage. Ralph also took ownership of the 1908 Buick. His family loved the car and it was a favorite in parades and special events in town. His children, especially Jim, looked forward to rides. Since it had become a car used only for special occasions, it was moved to Cape Cod, where the family had a summer home. It was there that Ralph befriended Chris Crowell, a local architect. Chris also had a passion for cars and owned a number of antiques and other fine automobiles. He was a frequent attendee and exhibitor at cars shows. In 1957 Ralph loaned the Buick Roadster to Chris who planned to show it in an antique car parade. Sadly, Chris passed away before the event. Chris’ passing was a blow to Ralph. During the months that followed, Chris’ widow sold off the collection of cars that Chris had brought together over the years. The 1908 was one of the cars sold. When the mistake was discovered by Ralph there was no good option to remedy it. Titles for antique cars were not handled the same way as they are now and the buyer was long gone. Undoing the deal was not possible and Ralph treaded lightly to avoid causing more pain to a woman with more than enough to deal with. So the car that had been part of the family for three generations and half a century was gone.
Part of the Family, Part 2
After college my wife and I both were drawn to the Cambridge/Boston bar and nightclub scene. It is a great time of life. We were working and had a few dollars to spend, but had few responsibilities. We were introduced by college friends at a bar in Boston called The Rat, and even though we had grown up about 5 miles from one another, had never met before. My friends, Jim and Betty Lehan, have a similar story. After graduating from College in 1967, Jim was working hard and playing hard. He had even found a girlfriend, a grade-school classmate from the Dedham Country Day School who he rediscovered in Cambridge. Things were good, but about to get great. After a few dates Jim picked up his girlfriend one night at her apartment. His girlfriend’s roommate, a young lady named Betty Stone, answered the door. As Jim describes it the lightning bolt struck and he knew at that moment who he wanted to spend his life with. It took him a month to make his move, but in January 1969 Jim and Betty started dating. By April they were engaged. Betty was a teacher in Millis Mass. and Jim had entered the world of finance and insurance. Despite their accomplishments they had an event ahead of them nobody is really ever fully prepared for. The first time their parents would meet!
I remember how frazzled my wife and I were when we planned that first introduction of the families. Your mind goes to all kinds of crazy places. You wonder if the parents will like one another. All the third rail topics are just hanging out there to be discussed. Religion, politics, Red Sox. Nervous does not begin to describe the feeling. Making things a little more stressful was the fact that Betty’s family was in the resort business. Her family ran a place in Dennis Mass. and spring is a busy time. There are new employees to hire and get established, and an endless list of last minute repairs to be completed before the first customers start to arrive. To make things a bit easier on the Stone family, the Lehan clan travelled to a restaurant near the Stone’s home on the cape. They found a place that could take a reservation in Sandwich called the Quonameset Inn.
After the shaking of hands, the half-hugs and the polite hellos, the tricky business of where to seat everyone got underway. The dads, Bob Stone, and Ralph Lehan, sat next to one another. Jim was seated nearby and he tells me he remembers being nervous. You only get one chance to make a first impression. As Jim tells it, he remembers listening to his dad and Bob Stone talk. The conversation had progressed from “So tell me what you do…” to more relaxed topics. Maybe it was the cocktails taking affect? Jim does not remember the exact lead up, but at one point he remembers the conversation getting around to hobbies. And what hobby do all real men share? A love of cars. Ralph told Bob about his dad, James Lehan, having met Henry Ford and how the family had a car dealership for many years. Lehan’s Garage had been sold in 1962 and at that time became Dentch Ford (and later, Victory Ford). Ralph also made mention that he had a love of old antique cars. Bob replied something like “I love old cars too. In fact, I have a real gem. It is a 1908 Buick Roadster. I bought it about ten years ago from a woman who had lost her husband.” It is at this point in the recounting of the story that Jim’s recollection becomes pretty sharp. He tells me that most of the Lehans who could hear what Bob was saying all stopped and looked at him. Ralph and Jim were completely stunned and were sitting wide-eyed, mouths agape. Ralph started to describe the car one detail at a time to Bob. Now Bob became the one who was surprised. Finally, Ralph asked if the woman was Mrs. Crowell. Bob Stone replied “How do you know all this? Did Betty tell you the story?!” But she hadn’t told the story. She didn’t really even know the whole story. After more than a decade, Ralph and Jim Lehan had found James’ car. They now knew who it had been sold to accidentally.
Jim and his father-in-law got along very well and the relationship became very close. Close enough that over the years Jim would often joke about stealing the car back from Bob someday. Jim’s father, Ralph, was glad the car had found a good home. In 1986 Ralph Lehan passed away. Bob Stone too was feeling the effects of time. He’d had a stroke and a heart attack by that time. In the summer of 1986 Jim was visiting with the Stone’s on Cape Cod and Bob asked Jim to walk with him. His speech had been affected by his illness, as had his stride. Jim walked with Bob knowing something was up when they headed into the garage where the Buick was kept. When they got inside Bob said to Jim “Give me a dollar.” Jim did as asked. Bob then handed Jim a package with the title, and all of the car’s documents and history, and said “This belongs to you.” Jim and his family like to say “The car was never out of the family. We just didn’t know it.”
My favorite part of the movie Iron Man was the cool Audi that our hero zips around in. I just drove that car and can tell you the car is more of a hero than the man. The Audi R8 5.2 Spyder is a 2-seat convertible. It sports a V10 engine which is located behind the driver. Why a V10? Well, there is also a weaker, entry level version, with a V8, but who would want to be embarrassed at the country club with such a chick car. The V10 has 2 more and all guys want to have 2 more, so there you have it. Here are the specifications and the price. 525. 175,000. 3.7 Fill in your own units, but just a hint that one of those numbers is the horsepower. The sales tax on this car cost more than my tuition at U-Mass.
When you get in, the impression is that the car is of the highest possible quality. Every part of it is as good as the best part of any other car. Wherever the car touches you, or you touch it, the meeting is a splendid thing. It hugs your butt. You hold the wheel and it likes to be held. The gated shifter looks like a medical device. It is honed from aluminum, perfectly formed, and polished, but only for function, not flash. You can feel the gears mesh through the shifter knob and you can imagine them thanking you. The gears are old college friends with the engine. The coolest thing about this car, from my point of view, is the engine sound. I actually parked it for a while during my test drive and phoned people to let them hear it. The V10 sounds like some kind of enraged animal. Maybe a Gruffalo. When the car revs up it first starts to yell, then screams, then it just goes completely freakin nuts and starts wailing and running around in circles waving its arms in the air. In a good way.
I drove the car on the proverbial twisty mountain road and also on the highway. Unless I had access to a track (a private one of course, with my own cafe) I would not bother to own this car. The thing is just way too good for regular roads. I could tell you about the handling and braking and all that other stuff, but my memory of this car is the sound of it screaming as I floored it, shaking from excitement and grinning like an idiot.
If the Audi R8 Spyder is Iron Man, the Mercedes SLS AMG is the Terminator. Iron Man is technical, even a bit nerdy, but also very much a lady killer. The Terminator is a lady killer too, but literally. The SLS is a more traditional two-seat roadster layout with the engine ahead of the driver. The long hood houses a monster V8, but the signature feature of this car is its gull-wing doors. They open up, rather than out. To get in you have to sort of climb over the side sill, which is as thick as a cinder block, and then plop into the seat.
The Mercedes is all business. When you drive it, it seems to give you the impression that it can defeat any other car on the road. That may actually be true. The beast accelerates with such immediacy it is almost frightening. When you are in first gear and you give it full throttle it waits just an instant as the revs build and then it is like the guy coming out the cannon at the circus BAM! And you are already violating the speed limit. Count with me 1, 2, 3 -that is 60 miles per hour from a dead stop. You’re still in first gear. When I punched it hard the Earth’s spin was temporarily slowed a bit. This car should only be driven hard North-South to prevent changes in the duration of the day. Like the Audi, the sounds this car makes are also fantastic. But this engine sounds best when you accelerate and then get off the gas abruptly. When you do, the engine does that back-burble thing and it sounds like someone threw a bag of lit M-80s out the window and started shooting them with a rifle. During my ride I just kept doing that, rev it up, get off the gas. Repeat. The guy behind me in the Rav-4 would disappear, then reappear in the rear view mirror.
If you want specifications, color choices, weights, measures, gas mileage etc., feel free to surf the net. These cars are not about numbers.
There are a lot of car nuts who will take to the open road for no good reason. Just get in the car and go. Jack Kerouac made a life of it. Most road trips are taken in the summer or fall, in cars with convertible tops, or at least sunroofs. By my reckoning that is sane. Taking a road trip in the dead of winter and heading north may not be.
One thing I will tell say about winter road trips is this – tires. Tires make or “brake” the trip. It wasn’t until I worked for a company in Quebec that I really got into the winter tire religion. I’m still not clear on if it is a law, or if everyone north of Vermont just has good sense, but pretty much all the cars there have winter tires. I was once driving to Quebec in a snowstorm in a Honda Accord on regular tires and slid right past a rest area I had meant to exit into. Not only did that nearly scare the “you know what” out of me, I then had to drive about another 2 hours (or about 30 miles) until the next one came around. Not fun when you are full of high-test coffee. That was the last time I drove north on “all-season” rubber.
Taking that same route in a Subaru Outback taught me another solid lesson. Four-wheel-drive makes no difference at all on the highway. It is all about the tires and how high up you are. On that trip, while I concentrated on my driving in a blinding snow storm, my passenger in the shot-gun seat pointed out to me that the brute-utes were passing us going a lot faster than seemed possible. As we headed from the Canadian border towards the mountains of Vermont, we learned it wasn’t possible. A few miles south of the tundra of Quebec, the road goes from being completely flat to twisty with a lot of down-hill sections. As we rounded one sharp bend, it looked like the scene in Dances With Wolves when John Dunbar finds all the Tatunka shot dead. There were about a dozen ‘utes off the road. Most were just stuck in 4 foot snow, but some were upside down and had rescue heroes in attendance. So in addition to winter tires, I’ve added a reasonably low center of gravity to my check list for a good winter road trip car.
I’m not alone in this realization. A few years back, while having lunch in a diner just north of the middle of Nowhere, I looked through frosted glass into the parking lot and saw that every car was an all wheel drive wagon. Near my 4-Motion Passat were a Volvo Cross Country, an Audi A-4 Avant Quattro and the usual Subbie Outbacks. There were two snow-mobiles in the lot as well. That is how you know it is a good joint. Someone too far into the wild to get to the place in their car actually took a Ski-Doo to lunch.
This month, between blizzards, I went to the Montreal Auto Show as an excuse for a good winter road trip. The weather was ideal if you like cold (see photo) and dry. Route 89 twists its way up and down thousand foot elevation changes and takes the driver past one ski area after another. The mountains were absolutely beautiful. Ice waterfalls lined the road in many places. Seeing these made me want to grab my crampons and ice axe and start climbing. Except that I hate heights, and don’t own crampons or an ice axe. But still…
The road was basically deserted. For many miles there was no car in front of, or behind me. The few other vehicles on the road fell into two main categories; Salt encrusted Subarus with local plates and a dog screen in the back, or high end sport-utes with roof pods from New York, New Jersey, and Mass. Ski racks are apparently now out of fashion, having been replaced with the pod, or maybe the snow boards can just lie down inside the massive cargo areas of these leviathans. Both groups share a passion for oval stickers around a couple of letters, but my favorite bumper proclamation remains the local’s “I-Heart-My-Dog Head” stickers.
When you drive for six or seven hours in the morning throwing back java, rest areas are a welcome sight, and the ones on Rt 89 are pretty darn good. The only improvement to the rest stops in Vermont and New Hampshire would be free windshield washer fluid. Top quality coffee is already free (thank you Green Mountain!) and the wood burning fireplaces and observation decks rival some of the best ski-lodges I have been to. If they do start offering squirty juice, it can’t be the regular blue liquid. It will have to be the pink or green stuff that says it works to -30F. I remember learning in college chemistry class that the colors pink and green have a much lower freezing point than does blue. It might seem silly, but even though I had the super-concentrated stuff, it was squirting out like a Slush-puppy and instantly freezing on my windshield. The blue would have frozen in the nozzles or turned to ice in the air and bounced off the glass. Maybe the next car I buy should have those heated windshield squirters….
While I drove back on familiar roads finishing up this trip, I found myself thinking about – taking another road trip! That my friends, is a tell-tale sign of late stage auto addiction. Jack Kerouac finished his defining work, On The Road, by saying he was thinking of Dean Moriarty. Since Dean was his road trip wing man, I have a feeling we were actually thinking the same thing.
If you suffer from auto addiction and need a sponsor, please drop me a line at email@example.com.
Driving the soon to be released Chevy Volt has made me rethink the possibilities for electric cars in the US marketplace. In 1990, while finishing up my engineering degree, I was part of a team that built an electric car from scratch. I’ve been a skeptic of electric cars since that time. They are not affordable compared to gasoline powered cars. The Volt costs nearly triple what a gas powered car its size costs. Worse, they are powered by coal and uranium. Possibly the only two things environmentalists hate more than oil. However, there are some new twists to the new Chevy Volt that I find very interesting. The game is about to change for electric car sales.
Having some seat time in the Volt and taking time to look the car over first hand leaves one with an overall impression of quality and solidity. The car lacks nothing that would make it any less desirable than a premium brand compact car. The car is small. About the size of a Civic or Corolla, but it seats only 4 because the batteries take up so much space. The car is a hatch back. In fact, the rear end has the split rear window of the 1990s Honda CRX. To overcome this, a rear view camera is offered. To my eye the Volt styling looks conservative, but decent.
The Volt’s batteries can be charged with a standard 110 volt line in your home. The Nissan Leaf, the only other electric car coming soon, requires a special charging station or a special electrical set-up. Credit Chevy with taking this problem and expense off the table. A full charge will carry the Volt a long way – 40 miles or more. Chevy’s biggest innovation with the Volt is that after that range is exceeded, a gasoline engine in the car will turn on and charge the batteries as you go. This eliminates the main problem with electric cars – range. The first time you have to take your kid to the emergency room for stitches, and the car isn’t charged, is the day your electric car is for sale. With the Volt, range is never an issue.
Part of Chevy’s recent demise, along with parent GM, was the product. The insides of GM’s cars were just not as good as the cars they competed with. Prior to GM’s bankruptcy, I’d been to “Ride and Drives” sponsored by GM. The events were intended to show the public that their cars and sport utes were just as good as the competition. GM brought their best vehicles and the competition to closed courses and let people drive both. Guess what? The competition was better. The new Volt however, seems much more modern than any past or current GM vehicle. In some ways, even more than Cadillac. The center stack, for example, has nifty switches and controls I had never seen. I asked my host from the GM Advanced Technology Demonstration Team and he confirmed they have never been used before. This is important. Previous “New” cars from Chevy had been derided by the auto press for sneaking in the old blinker stalk and other cheesy bits from the parts bin. This value engineering cheapened the product when compared to the Asian and German rivals. It made the GM cars seem too plasticy.
The displays and the infotainment center in the Volt are quite impressive. There are little graphics you can watch to impress yourself with your driving efficiency. All hybrids and electric cars have these. I asked the GM rep if it can be turned off, and without even looking, he reached over from the passenger seat and tapped the button to make the screen go to a Volt logo. He has been driving a beta Volt since early summer and I could tell that move was not new to him. These GPS, sound system, energy mapping, and video game console graphics are important to many people and I am cool with that. I recently had a demonstration of the Lexus Enform system and I thought the display and graphics were the best I had ever experienced. The quality of this Volt system seemed just as good.
Whenever I read a review of a hybrid or electric car it is always full of “ drives just like a regular car!” type statements. Well, I am here to tell you the Volt did not feel regular to me. It was a contrast of sensations. The car feels much more solid than any compact car I have ever been in including small Audis. Credit the crazy high weight perhaps? It is also waaay slower than I am used to. I recently had a loaner Honda Accord with a base 4 cylinder engine. That car felt like a rocket compared to this Volt. The Volt brakes were also not quite what I expected. They had no hint of any regenerative braking effect that is so often mentioned when speaking of hybrids. It would have been welcome. The brakes just seemed not to grab.
The main design elements of an electric car are; Range, Cost, and Performance. You can pick any two you like, but you can’t have all three. That was true when electric cars were first made in the 1800s and it was true for the GM EV1 electric car in the 1990s. It is demonstrated perfectly by today’s $130,000.00 Tesla, the only electric car in US the market I am aware of. The Volt has good range. Its performance is close to acceptable. So what about price? That is what intrigues me the most. It doesn’t matter anymore. There are people willing to pay just about any price to be seen doing what they think is right. The car does not have to cost what a good gas-powered car costs. It can cost significantly more. Here is how it works right now. The Volt has a sticker of about $42,000.00. You pay about $35,000.00 and your neighbors pay $7,500.00. By that I mean, the federal government will give you back that amount of taxpayer’s money because you are doing a good thing in the eyes of the government. Your state might throw in a couple grand as well. To me it seems like the fix is in. If those incentives are not enough the government will raise them until they are.
The only fly in the ointment is the now proven $22,000.00 Toyota Prius. You can buy a 5 passenger, 50 MPG Prius and have $13,000.00 in your bank account, or you can have a 4 passenger, smaller Volt. Making things more interesting will be the up-coming plug-in Prius, which will be very similar to the Volt in daily use. I think Toyota is smart. They are waiting to see how big those government subsidies are going to go before they roll out the new Prius. Why leave money on the table?
Please e-mail me your comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a scene in the movie Pulp Fiction that marks the turning point for one of the movie’s protagonists. In the scene, Jules and Vincent Vega are completing a violent job for their boss. While they do this, a man is hiding unnoticed in another room with a “Hand Cannon.” He summons his will and burst into the room just feet from Vincent and Jules and unloads all 6 rounds from the giant revolver point-blank. When the smoke clears Vincent and Jules look at themselves, then at each other and the wall behind them. They are unscathed. I had a similar experience in a convertible today.
It all started the way I like a good drive to start. I stopped by my favorite coffee shop and fueled up with dark roast. The car gods had smiled on me. In the parking lot were a new 370Z Roadster and a Porsche Boxster. My Miata completed the scene. I spoke to the 370Z’s owner for a bit. For those of you not in the know, the 370Z is a 2 seat convertible with about 330 horsepower. It also has a unique manual transmission that matches revs on the downshifts. There is no other transmission like it. The owner surprised me. He was thinking of modifying the 370Z by adding a special exhaust and possibly an aftermarket turbocharger. As I listened I became aware I was in the presence of a rare bird- A person more car crazy than myself! It happens from time to time, and I am always amazed. I wanted to tell him I thought adding horsepower to a 370Z was like taking coal to Newcastle, but I try never to step on the dreams of a car nut. We need to stick together these days.
Leaving the coffee shop I was feeling pretty good about the day. The sun was out, there were hardly any cars on the road and there was still a bit of foliage on the trees. My secret touring spot has changed from southern-central NH to a group of towns south of Norfolk. I won’t tell you the name of the towns, but the one where most of the great roads are has some huge lakes and rhymes with “Cake-ville.” There is one road I really like and I was on that road when it happened. The road is one lane in each direction with no median, just yellow lines and it has a speed limit of 50mph. It runs the shoreline of a beautiful lake and has a long sweeping left turn that gets sharper as you go into it. It is one of those rare spots where the speed limit actually seems to be about right.
As I drove into that long left hand turn I could see up ahead an old-school garbage truck coming my way. Not one of these fancy blue things that grab the barrels themselves mind you, but rather the old kind like the ones from my youth in the 1970s that the guys used to stand on in the back as the truck rolled slowly to the next house. As the truck got larger I could see it leaning a bit to my side. It was turning right and I was on the outside of its curve. That was when I saw the wave. It has been raining here for the past week. That truck must have been full of water and old garbage. Sort of a 100% natural garbage juice mixture. As it turned the corner and leaned toward me the foul libation sloshed over to one side. My side. Being open in the back, that fetid wave had a way out.
As I came within about 20 feet of the truck the wave spilled out the back, and since the truck was going about 50, the liquid was instantly atomized into a sort of thick yuck drizzle. I’m not as sharp as I was a few decades back, but I could tell what was about to happen. I’m in an open top car the size of little red wagon about to be under water. Except it’s not water, its Garbagina. As I drove through something happened I did not expect. Something magical. There was no deluge. There was no wetness on me and the inside of the car was completely dry. Yes, the windshield got coated and I hit the wipers to clear it, but somehow I was not soaked and the smell was only about half as bad as I expected.
Winston Churchill once said “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” I’ll take his word for it. It seemed true for Jules in Pulp Fiction. My own words of wisdom are “There are few reliefs as great as knowing you are about to be covered in garbage juice, and then not be.” Feel free to use this quote anytime the situation seems right.
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Jimmy H. asks: Can you give me a basic explanation of how cruise control works and why sometimes it seems like there’s a little “jump” in the speed when it is set?
Matt F asks: How does the new collision-prevention cruise control work?
More than one reader has asked about cruise control. Similarly, some of the readers have asked what cool or new features they might be able to get on a new car purchase. Let’s combine these thoughts and look at all things cruise-control related. Let’s also consider what we really want cars to do for us. Cruise control is a form of speed control for machines. You might think that this is a simple thing, but machines pre-dated useful electronics, so controlling the speed of a machine had to be mechanical. Imagine an engine that is spinning a generator to make electricity. If the engine were large the danger from its running too fast and then starting to break apart could be quite real. Rotating parts have a lot of energy that can translate into force if they break off and hit a person or something expensive, so controlling a machine from running too fast was an early challenge. One way to control the speed of a machine used in early days was what is basically called a centrifugal clutch. Metal balls connected to springs were used to control the rotational speed of equipment. As speed increased, the balls would move away from the centerline. They were connected to a device that would choke the engine if they moved too far away from the center. They would then move back toward the centerline a bit and the engine’s speed could be mechanically controlled in this fashion. “Balls out” and similar expressions started from this type of equipment.
Modern car designs use sensors that compare the speed the driver selects and the speed as measured by the speedometer system. If more throttle is required to maintain the speed, it is automatically provided. If less throttle is required to maintain the speed — say, as you head downhill — the throttle is reduced or cut. Generally, the brakes are not applied, but read on for some exceptions.
Cruise control in cars was invented in the 1940s by Ralph Teetor. Despite the challenge of being blinded when he was young, he earned a mechanical engineering degree and then became an inventor working on steam turbines and other equipment. Eventually he found his way to the auto industry. Although cruise control was invented in the 1940s, it did not become available as an option on cars until the late 1950s and was not widely available until the 1960s. Today it is available on almost all cars, and is standard on many of the most popular models. I have been in very inexpensive rental cars that had cruise control, but had manual seats covered in cloth. So it has become an option not really associated with luxury. Mainstream cruise control has two main uses. The first is to make highway cruising a bit easier on the driver. The second is to save fuel. It is generally accepted that using cruise control will save fuel for the average person driving in a normal fashion. I only mention this because more and more people are considering extreme measures to save fuel. Many of these involve expensive equipment added to a basic car. Using cruise control is one way to cost effectively save fuel in real-life driving.
Most readers already know how the system works. You first enable the cruise control by hitting an “on” button. Then, when you are at the speed you want to stay at, you hit a “set” button which will allow the cruise contol to take over the control of the speed. Sometimes there is a slight nudge as it takes over. This has to do with how quickly you take your foot off the gas and it is different from model to model. I suspect some car makers actually program in a slight nudge to alert you that cruise control is now engaged. Once set, you can gently increase the speed or decrease the speed with up and down buttons usually found on the right side of the steering wheel. This is useful for long trips as you adjust for changes in speed limit or to allow space for other cars also on cruise control. Most cars will actually shift an automatic transmission to keep up the set speed on steep hills. That is sort of fun if you haven’t tried it. Try it on the next steep incline you come across on the highway. It is safe, but the car making all those adjustments on its own is a little weird and unsettling. Hitting the brake, or clutch if there is one, shuts off the system. Using the gas does not. Most systems allow you to hit the gas to pass and then when you lift your foot off the accelerator the system lets the car go back down in speed to the set point.
You may have heard about adaptive cruise control, or if you have an expensive car, you might have it. This is a variation on the theme that includes some form of radar or other sensing that will allow you to follow a car at a set distance in front of you as it speeds up and slows down. Your cruise control “adapts” to the situation and allows you to keep a good spacing in traffic without having to constantly readjust the speed setting. The best use of this is on long stretches, like the Mass. Pike west of Route 495, for example. There, regular cruise control can be frustrating as you constantly creep up on the same car for mile after mile and then they return the favor if you pass. I have found that if you do this long enough you will findyourself next to that person in line at the next rest area buying coffee. You might as well introduce yourself! Some new cruise control systems will actually slow the car to the point that it will stop if the car in front stops. That is a major departure from older systems, which never used the brakes to control speed. They would only watch the set point and either supply more throttle to speed up, or cut the throttle to allow the car to slow down from wind resistance and rolling resistance. A variation on this is even newer systems that watch what is ahead of you all of the time, not just when cruise control is setting the pace. These systems will go so far as to apply the brakes firmly and stop the car if warranted. I think this new accident prevention system is a little too much. There is no harm in the system being able to do this, other than added cost. However, I think if you actually use it the car should email you a polite note asking if it is time to possibly consider the bus next time. After all, if the car had not stopped itself, what would have happened?
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Q. Frank L. asks: My Volkswagen Jetta has a turbocharged engine and the manufacturer recommends 91 octane. I used to think that this requirement was related to the turbo, but lately I’ve noticed that some manufacturers recommend higher octane for non-turbocharged engines, too. Am I going to damage my engine if I use a lower octane than the manufacturer suggests, or will I just see lower performance? Is there any advantage to using higher octane versus the manufacturer’s recommendation?
A. That engine is a gem and is found in vehicles ranging from mainstream cars like the Jetta to rockets like the souped-up Audi TT. The simple answer is that the engine is so smart that you can feed it “regular” unleaded and it will be O.K., according to Darren Daley at Daley’s Service in Norfolk Center. Darren tells me that during all his years as a mechanic he has not seen any car brand have trouble using regular unleaded — except BMW. I asked him about the other premium car brands like Acura and Infiniti and he stuck to his statement.
Let’s look more closely at this issue, starting with why the octane rating matters. The octane rating of gasoline is a rating of its resistance to detonation in the engine. Detonation is an improper, too-rapid burning of the fuel. The results of detonation are now mainly part of old-car lore, and are known as “knocking and pinging.” Back when people used to think of gas as inexpensive, fuel manufacturers needed a way to try to differentiate their products from their rivals. They started to offer gasoline blends that were a little bit different from the conventional blend. Some engine tuners could make use of the difference to adjust an engine in a way that would produce just a smidgen more power per drop of fuel consumed. From this evolved the current state of affairs in the United States, where you are offered many different octane levels at the pump.
In modern cars of almost every make and model the engine contains what is called a “knock sensor.” This is really just a microphone. It listens for the sounds that the engine starts to make if the fuel is not being properly burned in the engine. When it detects the sound it sends information to the car’s computer. The computer then looks at the exact location of the pistons in their stroke and it can tell how the car should adjust the timing to correct the situation. “Timing” is a word that encompasses a few different things, but can be simplified to mean the time that the spark is applied during the car’s compression stroke in the engine. The car will automatically adjust the timing of the spark (and some other things) so that the fuel is burned to its best effect and the car generates as much power as possible from that specific fuel it is being fed. Old cars had none of this. The timing could only be adjusted manually and mechanically by a technician when the car was not being driven. So you could only have one setting. If the fuel did not well match the setting there was knocking and pinging.
One interesting fact many folks don’t know is that the refineries don’t actually make all those different octane blends (85, 87, 89, 91, 93). They just make a high and a low and those two are blended to make up all the other ones. How do I know this? Back in the 1990s I worked at a company that made parts for some of the older blending systems. Newer gas pumps can actually do this blending “on the fly” and deliver whatever you select at the pump. Some gas stations offer up to fivedifferent octane levels at the pump. By only refiningtwo blends they can just send out two trucks to each gas station, instead of three to five. As a car nut and a person passionate about all things power and-energy-related, I think having more than one octane rating for gasoline is crazy and wasteful. All of the premium automakershave engine designs so powerful that the few percentage points of extra horsepower possible from 93 octane gas versus “regular” 87 octane are not noticeable in normal driving. Base model cars with the less powerful engines are all rated to use regular, 87 octane gas. That is ironic, since in those cars a few more horsepower might be genuinely useful, so the logic of this is all backwards. Frank’s situation is even more frustrating, in that Volkswagen suggests 91 octane, which is not usually sold in New England. We typically get to choose from 87, 89, and 93.
Why don’t the automakers get together and just pick a middle rating and make all the cars operate properly using that one? Why doesn’t our government, which seems to meddle in everything else related to automobiles and fuel, mandate one octane number? I can tell you why, but then I would be writing a political article, not an automotive column. One thing that the car makers started to experiment with recently is to market some of their fancy cars as “Able to use regular gas.” They became aware that some frugal folks did not want to buy cars that recommended premium fuel because they realize there is no practical benefit to the more expensive gas. I hope this trend sticks. When you shop for your next car, ask the dealer to explain to you — and show you in the owner’s manual — what the manufacturer’s policy is regarding using regular fuel. In almost all cases the dealer will be able to show you something stating that regular is O.K. (even if the manufacturer says say premium is recommended).
Finally, a quick math challenge for you: Let’s say you burn a full tank of gas each week. What is the annual difference in price between 87 octane and 93? The answer is “about $150.” If you have a question or comment, please email me at email@example.com.