Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Napa Adventure: Prep

The next adventure is just around the corner. The goal, to drive from Osoyoos BC, Canada all the way to Napa California on a single tank of fuel. Challenging enough as it is, the vehicle in question is a Porsche Cayenne. The bad news, it's the dead of winter and vehicles loose fuel efficiency in freezing conditions. The good news is that the Cayenne is diesel powered with a 100L tank. Will we make it to Napa, or will we end up stranded on the side of the road? My marriage likely hangs in the balance!

I'll report back on our progress as much as possible, and hopefully figure out how to upload photos from the phone. Till next time.

Friday, January 11, 2013

First Impressions: Tesla Model S

Times they are a changin,’ it used to be driving a Porsche or Aston Martin would get heads turning on the sidewalk. Today, only heads full of grey hair snap to attention at the sound of a grumpy V-8, the younger generations won’t lift their heads from vital smart-phone attention for anything less than a full electric vehicle (EV). It’s the eco cars that are now all the rage, yet the Tesla Model S is a car that grabs everyone’s attention.

Tesla has created an all new driving experience with the Model S, starting from scratch in redesigning the automobile as a whole. It’s not the anemic EV stereotype but a sleek and mean rocket, overflowing with tech and sports a sexy look. It won’t just be science geeks wanting a rip in this ride.

The coolness factor gets turned to eleven with touch operated door-handles, and a dash void of any dials or buttons, just a 17-inch iPad-like interaction interface that controls everything one would want with the car, fully adjustable to the user with steering wheel controls. With a key fob the car turns on by sitting in the driver’s seat and off by getting out. Best of all, the S cures range anxiety, getting 257km with the base, opt for the more expensive 85kWh battery and that number improves to 480km. It is the first road trip capable EV.

The beautiful thing about electric cars is their ability to make the exercise of driving relaxing. The smooth propulsion of electric power will actually calm you in the worst congestion yet will shoot your body full of excitement on a clear road. The S shoved me into the seat back like nothing I’ve ever driven and corners nearly as well. However, it’s also practical with two massive trunks and seating for up to five adults and two children.

I end with this; there are few modern cars that I would buy, and furthermore, I loathe automatic transmissions. However, Tesla has created an all new joy of driving with the Model S and I yearn to one day own one.

Price: $ 64,500 base, $ 114,300 as tested
Engine: Rear-mounted, three phase, four pole AC induction motor, RWD
Power: 416 hp, 443 lb-ft
Weight: 2,223 kg
Range: 257 km with 40 kWh battery, 370 km with 60 kWh battery, 480 km with 85 kWh battery

Friday, December 14, 2012

First Impressions: 2013 Honda Civic

Let’s start out by saying I’ve always liked the Civic, in particular in its last generation as it sported a unique look that made it stand out from the rest of the econo-boxes. The problem began when those other econo-boxes started to build much more interested designs. On top of that, they’ve filled those designs with fantastic new features that you would only find on only top tier luxury barges. Then when it came time to redesign the Civic for the 2012 model year, more than a few journalists were unimpressed with the result, myself included.

As others were striving forward with new unique designs and technology, Honda chose to take a more mainstream direction, leaving a car that needed a sharp eye to catch what work had actually been done. Likewise, the interior treatment seemed even more cheap and plastic than before, but what’s worse, Honda finally succumbed to pressure for more torque, putting a big lazy 2.4L engine into the Si rather than the high-strung 2.0L I have loved for well over a decade. The result was disappointing to say the least, yet sales did not waver as the Civics golden name and price kept the car on top of the sales sheets.

However, you can only fall upon your laurels for so long and after only one short year, Honda is already showing a mid-cycle refresh of the Civic for 2013. So what’s new? Well, the 2013 model receives all-new front and rear exterior styling, new wheels and extensive interior styling upgrades on all models. The devil is in the details and the new exterior looks do go a long way in improving the styling while the new soft touch materials on the dash and doors also bring the Civic up to par with the rest of the top end of the compact segment. Mechanically, retuned steering and firmer suspension sharpen the Civics’ handling, and actually made the car feel much more refined and sharper while on a short test drive, something lacking last year.  Also, extensive body and chassis upgrades further improve the ride comfort and interior quietness. Honda has also packed Bluetooth HandsFreeLink, Bluetooth Audio,  colour i-MID display, USB/iPod connection, heated front seats, text messaging feature, easy to use steering wheel audio controls standard equipment on Civic LX, the highest sold model.

The result is a much higher quality vehicle from the 2012 model year, everything the Civic should have been in the first place, it’s good to see Honda is getting back on track after a few very trying years. However, I’m still not happy with the move to a torqueier but lazier 2.4L powering the Si, although I seem to be a minority. Regardless, Civic fans have a much better, more competitive vehicle to take on the likes of Ford, Hyundai, Chevy and Mazda. And maybe I’ll have my screaming 2.0L in the hot hatch rumoured to be coming our way soon. More on that later.

Price: $15,440 - $26,190
Engine: 1.8L I-4, 2.4L I-4
Power: 140hp-128lb.ft. (1.8L) - 201hp-170lb.ft. (2.4L)
Layout: Front Engine – Front Wheel Drive
Weight: NA – Slightly heavier than 2012
Fuel Efficiency (City/Hwy/Com) L/100Km: 7.1/5.0/6.2 (1.8L) - 10.0/6.4/8.4 (2.4L)


Thursday, October 11, 2012

First Impressions - Chevrolet Volt


It is the environmental halo car of the newly reorganized GM, the new direction for a company that needed drastic change to become competitive once again. I was looking forward to driving the Volt, two years after having tested the prototype in electric mode only. While I’ve been a pretty big fan of the electric car, the Volt was a good meal that left a sour taste in my mouth.

Let’s start with the good, because deep down, it is a good car. I love the looks; the interior design is fantastic for a company that used to launch vehicles with interior designs that were outdated before they even made it to the production line. Build quality has been vastly improved over older GM’s; the Volt is a solid, tight feeling car with high quality buttons and dials. For the first time I’ve driven a car where the light dimmer switch actually dims all light emitting sources inside the car from a single point, even the annoyingly bright high beam light. And finally, the serenity of electric drive; this car is so quiet that the loudest distraction was the gears in the differential coming under load when pulling away from a stop, bravo GM, in electric mode the Volt is a champ.
However, there is a lot of damning issues left unfinished, imperfections that really should have been taken into account back in the research and development days, simple and common sense issues that should have been sorted before the car was ever put into production. Dual screens bombard the driver with distracting information while the centre stacks layout is confusing at best. Even after a week I couldn’t figure out how to get certain operations to work, and had my eyes away from traffic far too much. However, even when I was watching the road, massive A-pillars with a steep rake killed peripheral vision, making left-hand turns almost a crap shoot. The rear-view mirror is mounted high on the windshield behind a raised portion in the roof. This not only obscures the majority of the view out the back but even rendered the auto-dimming function completely useless. The blind spots are large and the shifter will draw blood putting the car in park.

However, the most disappointing letdown was the Volts fuel efficiency once the petrol engine engaged. Averaging 6.3L/100km, the Volt not only gets its ass kicked by Prius, a TDI Golf also gets nearly 1L/100km better efficiency on the highway, pretty much making the whole point of the Volt mute. The Volt was designed for Range Anxiety racked Americans that want kill their dependence on fuel while still being able to drive long distances. If you need to drive long distances you’re better off buying a Golf TDI that is $15K cheaper and gets better efficiency. A city dweller that does the odd road trip, save $1,500 on a Nissan Leaf with nearly twice the range and save it for a rental when you need to travel.

I know I’ve been hard on it, I do actually like the car, but there are just way too many short comings for a car that costs over $41K. Hopefully a good mid-cycle refresh will iron out most of the issue I’ve had, however, how this car won so many awards is beyond me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

First Impressions: Chevrolet Corvette 427


In all my years as an Automotive Journalist, I've yet to put my hands on a Chevrolet Corvette. Stubbornly, I've always shunned the Vette as an "all engine, no poise" poorly built muscle car without really driving one. Well, know I have and I’m beginning to change my tune.

Where I got it right, the interior is painfully ugly and went out of style in the late 80’s. Really, it still uses buttons from that era. The seats feel as though they are planks of plywood with a bit of low-density foam tossed on top. The steering knocks about, the clutch pedal is longer that a tractors and it drives like an old pickup when not pushing it to the limits. Finally it’s the poster car for the man’s midlife crisis, as not one 20 or 30 year old gave me the thumbs up, but every guy over the age of 50 were drooling at the sight of it.
Where I got it wrong, it is a beautifully balanced car, the magnetic ride and super sticky, super wide Michelin Pilot Sports will have it bending physics theories in corners, the brakes are some of the best I’ve ever experienced, the seating position is that of a proper sports car. When you do start to push it, the truck feel of the controls goes away and everything starts to make sense, and finally, it’s just really good fun to drive, while having no refinement, no real technology, it harkens back to when sports cars where no nonsense, no frills, single minded speed demons. Other than a USB port to play you favourite music, a GPS unit to save the real man from the embarrassment of asking for directions and traction control to keep everything on the straight and narrow when in civil environments, there is nothing else added to the 427 Vette that doesn’t make it go faster.

So do the old guys know something we don’t? I’m beginning to think they do, or I may be in denial of how much my hairline is degrading. Either way, the Vette is a proper sports car, a car that nostalgically brings back the true joy of driving.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Australian Adventure: Log 15

It’s been much too long since I’ve posted a blog entry of this incredible expedition; however, it is with good reason, as the team has been through an amazing series of challenges. From Roma, we left Rick’s house and took off from town with several onlookers cheering us along. Our destination of choice is Dubbo; however, landing in the town of Miles, we’re forced to concede to the massive storm system to our front. There are big nasty clouds all around us from the north down to the south east, a wall of rain and wind blocking our path. In Miles, we have to make the decision to change course once again, pushing south to work a crosswind rather than a full headwind. It cuts a large amount of distance off our route south, but it keeps us going.

Glenn makes a late landing in the village called The Gums. There is nothing here other than a couple derelict shacks and a rundown Road House sitting on the junction of two roads. The locals are not as hospitable as others we’ve had the pleasure of running into, and we set up in the truckers parking behind the Road House. It’s not a particularly pleasant sleep with trucks coming and going all night long, their generators starting up and shutting off. It’s another night with little sleep, but we’re back on the road, Glenn lifting off early in a bid to get down to Goondiwindi but sets down 3km short of the town on Moonie. We spend the day at the Road House here, the heat outside keeping me in the shelter of the air conditioned bar, buying overpriced coffee to keep my seat. We’re in wild pig territory here and the wall of the Road House is decorated with the heads of several different species of wild Boar. It seems that every truck that goes by is a pig or Roo hunter’s truck, the padded bars on the windows and rifles under the windshield giving away the drivers profession.

The winds just aren’t calming down today though. We move out to the Cricket pitch to make a lunch and waste away another couple hours, but as the sun begins to sink; the possibility of an evening flight is lost. We look around for a spot to camp as the cricket pitch parking lot has several no camping signs up. Instead we pull behind the bushes on the driveway to a farmer’s paddock. There are “No Trespassing” signs everywhere, but we set up camp for the night hoping no one witnessed us sneak in. We should be gone before the farmer comes to work tomorrow morning, hopefully.

The next morning brings with it kinder winds. Glenn is able to get up and heads straight west towards St. George. Again, he’s forced to set down short of the goal, about 60km out of town. We are forced to set up camp on a derelict side road as storm clouds finally catch up to us. We knew that at some time the run would be stopped with the coming weather, it just sucks that we are stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The storm hits us that night, Craig and I are in the camper while Glenn and Mark are out in tents. The amateur stitching job that I did to the canvass roof over my bed gets its first real test as torrents of rain fall on us all night long. The rain is relentless and my stitching fails big time. At first a small drip of water drips onto the mattress beside my head. I grab a towel and place it under it. The roof above is starting to pool water though and shortly a wet area in the middle starts to open up another leak from saturation. I place another towel in the middle of the bed and shift my body into a crescent shape in a vain effort to keep dry.

However, the rain is relentless, the saturated spot in the middle of the canvas is now dripping in four different places at a much greater rate, and the stitched rip is now a full pouring waterfall onto my bed. It’s a good thing it’s still quite warm out as my bed gets wetter and wetter. I soon give up the fight to keep the water from entering and just try to get some degree of sleep in the bathtub. The sleeping bag is soaked, the mattress nothing more than a giant sponge keeping as much water under me as possible. Sleep is futile and all I can do is wait for the light of day to come so that I can get out of the pool that is my bed.

Finally the sun rises and the others begin to wake. I did not sleep a wink all night, emerging from my sleeping bag dripping as though I just got out of a pool. Mercifully, the sun has broken through some of the rain clouds and I can pull all my sleeping attire out to dry. I wring rivers of water out of the shirt and boxers I was wearing. The sleeping bag and mattress are also heavily laden with water and I wring as much out as I can and lay them out in the sun to dry.

The winds are still high and rain squalls rotate through every hour it seems. There is no chance for Glenn to get back up in the air and we’re forced to spend the day on the ground, deteriorating from boredom. Walks down the old road and highway get boring quickly, and watching all the ants come and go from their little holes in the red clay ground also gets old soon. Craig spots a white snake making its way across the highway and we go up to investigate. It turns out not to be a snake but a row of several caterpillars all linked up for the daunting crossing of the highway, out in the open for predators to sweep in. I guess there is safety in numbers and by being all linked up, they do look like a snake from a distance, scaring away some rodents possibly. I run back to camp to grab a camera and tell Mark and Glenn. We are all so bored that the sight of some caterpillars crossing the road turns out to be the most exciting part of the day.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Australian Adventure: Log 14

I’m up early once again, the mere sound of Glenn’s tent unzipping is enough to get me out of bed, even if the night sky is still untouched by the suns rising rays. It’s like the army all over again, I’d automatically wake at 5 am every morning for that was the regimented routine. I put together a round of teas for Glenn Mark and I, and Mark and Glenn negotiate over the computer, watching with worried eyes as weather systems advance on our location. Rain is on its way in the next couple days and will likely hold us up. A quick decision is made to bypass Emerald and cut south. Winds are pushing in from the coast, so Glenn’s thinking is that changing direction south will allow a few more days of travel, only having to fight crosswinds, rather than meeting the systems head on in a fight for Emerald. This also means that we are sacrificing highway miles up north, so we’ll have to find more down south before we cut across to Perth.
With the early morning leave from Barcladine, I’m not so eager for a breakfast this morning as the weight of a deep-fried seafood platter is still sitting in my stomach. Glenn makes a successful flight first down to Blackall, where I get in a much needed swim at the local pool. Day upon day of sitting in the Nissan has stiffened my back, the mere act of turning to look out the window to find Glenn high up in the sky is almost becoming painful. The good swim does wonders to loosen up my muscles; I’ll have to make use of pools more often when they become available. Glenn’s evening flight sees him land in rodeo grounds just past the town of Tambo, offering up an excellent spot to set up camp. After a good meal cooked by Mark, I take the opportunity to sit out under the big sky, taking in the mass of stars that come out in the Outback sky. It really is amazing how much more you see out here, and I take every chance I can to do some star gazing before fatigue gets the better of me.
The next morning, Craig and I walk the Paramotor out to the truck pullout over on the highway. It’s another stroll through long grass; the injection of adrenaline from the threat of the legless menace is more than enough to wake whatever sleep was still in my eyes. With the wing set out, Glenn hits the starter and gets nothing but a click. Within a split second, I know what is about to happen. A furious tirade of profanity spews from Glenn’s mouth as he continues to hit the starter button to no avail. He thinks the battery is dead and Craig runs back through the wet grass while Glenn and I stripe down the Paramotor. Craig is back in a flash and we button up the Paramotor with a fresh battery. Glenn hits the starter button once again, “CLICK.” Boom goes Glenn, he’s so mad that he can’t even string different words together, just constantly yelling out “f@#$, f@#$, f@#$, f@#$….”

We pull everything over to camp, and start to strip the starter off of the Paramotor, however, there is a special technique to get it off and we decide that it is easier to just do a full engine swap with Marks motor that is stored in the truck. Another hour later we have swapped motors, but the wiring harnesses are different! Another long while of cutting, soldering and shrink wrapping, and we’ve managed to get Glenn’s machine tip top once again, but we’ve lost a good portion of the morning. Glenn takes to the air with little effort and gets a good head start as we have a huge mess to clean up after the frantic search for spares, tools and stripping a new engine out its box in the trailer.
We catch up to him just before the town of Charleville. The name sounds familiar to us, and as we start to notice the signs of flood waters, we quickly remember why. It was Charleville and the neighboring town of Mitchell that were evacuated last week, making the news. The devastation of the surrounding area was immediately evident, all the paddock fences were covered in debris, trees had mud reaching as high up as ten meters in some cases and the bridge entering the town was destroyed, yet being a good six meters over the rivers current level. The town itself was saved for the most part as it sits on high ground, but environment all around the town was left in ruin. We spent our mid-day break here, making use of an air conditioned Road House as a refuge from the searing mid-day heat. This is also where we would say good bye to Mark for a couple of days, he’s off to Sydney to partake in an event put on by Tourism Australia where he can schmooze with big wigs and celebs while giving interviews to all the countries major news stations.

On our way out of town, we stop at the local fuel station to top up the LPG (Propane) for the truck, finding that the pumps are out of service. We top up all the Jerry Cans in hopes that we can make it to the next town on petrol alone. We drop Mark off at the bus station and book out of town after Glenn. The route we take back east once again follows the river that flooded, and from Mervon to Mitchell, the landscape and infrastructure is raped by the forces of the flood waters. The bridge in Mitchell fared even worse than that in Charleville, being washed away completely and we take a makeshift fording ramp across the now tranquil stream.

With Mark now gone, Glenn’s focus and determination is left nearly unchallenged as he pushes to make up as much distance as he can. His risk taking is getting more and more exciting for Craig and I on the ground as he makes some spectacular takeoffs, battling wind and obstacles. One morning, he climbs out into a field with a runway that is too short and just wide enough to fit his wing. With liftoff, he’s just kissing the trees on the left side, but not getting the height to clear the tree’s in front, cranking over on his toggles, he swings right and just clears the paddock, averting disaster by mere feet. It’s an impressive feat, however, Craig and I start to wonder if he’s maybe starting to push too hard, taking chances that are too large.
From Mitchell we push on to Roma, and Glenn is already on the ground on the outskirts of town chatting with a local. We pull up to meet Rick, a large man with large personality, shooting from the mouth and sporting a big gut. “I saw this UFO falling from the sky, and figured I’d come over and see what it was.” He is an extremely good natured person, inviting us up to the shop for a couple of beers, then even gave us his house in town that he was renovating. We set up the trailer in the driveway and had full use of the bathroom and fridge.
We knew that we’d likely be stuck here a couple of days, as the winds were forecasted to be high, and the hospitality of Rick was a welcome surprise, making us feel right at home and tossing us another beer once we were all set up, having a good long chat in the back yard before our beds beckoned us.