Electric Land

A few things have happened recently that are pointing the way to an electrically driven future.

  •  Volvo announced that from 2019 and on, all of their cars will be electric or at least hybrid.
  • Premium performance car makers like Porsche, Audi and Mercedes are exploring hybrid and electric drive technologies.  Porsche have even announced their departure from an enviable position in the LMP1 field at Le Mans (that entry was a hybrid) so they can focus on Formula E.
  • Tesla is shipping their initial few units of the Model 3 to go along with the S and X, and the market already has vehicles like the BMW i3 and i8, the Nissan Leaf, and the Chevrolet Volt.
  • There’s talk of Britain banning all gas and diesel-powered cars by 2040.

 

2018 Tesla Model 3

Stock Marketing Photo from Tesla

So what does this mean for car enthusiasts?  In the short term, probably very little.   Most new cars today are efficient enough and there’s no genuine shortage of petrol or diesel in the developed world.  The technical limitations and costs of available electric cars remain a barrier to anything that could be considered ubiquitous adoption.

So this leaves us with a LOT of people driving petrol, diesel, and hybrid cars, trucks and SUVs.  This is not a bad thing.  Emissions controls, efficiency and performance are better than ever.  And the more people who buy and drive electric and hybrid cars, the less demand there is for petrol and diesel and that should keep the costs reasonable, at least to a point.

It’s possible the carbon police may eventually pass punitive taxes to make petrol and diesel vehicles financially unattractive, but that’s a political development that I won’t speculate on very much.  Shifting the carbon footprint of automobiles to electrical power generation plants probably won’t help the environment much, and may tax a utility grid that’s already at capacity.  Reality doesn’t seem to deter those who fancy themselves as righteous and green, so we may be in for an interesting ride.

We may someday face a future where all cars are electric, and that won’t necessarily be a bad thing.  The nice folks that run Tesla, Porsche and Mercedes (to name just a few) are already making sure it will be an interesting future.  That cars will still have pulse stirring 0-60 times and striking body styles and handling that will likely exceed what we have today.  The future may indeed be Electric Land (apologies to Bad Company), but I think that may be Ok.

 

The Great White North

Earlier this year, I had a series of road trips, and one of them included a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Being a long-time resident, I’ve often wondered why the UP is actually part of our state, since it’s not actually attached to Michigan by land, but by a bridge. I’m told it’s because we gave up Toledo to Ohio, when borders were being drawn, so there it is. On this particular trip to the UP, I figured it would be fairly mild, weather-wise, as it was already April and the winter in the part of Michigan where I live (very far south), had been mild. Turns out not-so-much, but more on that later.

I was coming off a west coast trip and an airline snarl that had left me stranded in Los Angeles for a couple of days. For this adventure I flew from Detroit’s Wayne County Airport, to Marquette where I where I would pick up up a rental car and drive the rest of the way. The rental desks at MQT are tiny, as are the fleets. I hadn’t requested any particular vehicle, so I knew I was rolling the dice as far what I’d be driving. I was only going to be in town for one overnight and one day, but the drive from MQT to my eventual destination is about two hours, so I was hoping for something good. The young lady behind the rental desk said “We’ve upgraded you to a Chevy Trax”. I know what a Chevy Trax is and I wondered what I was being upgraded ‘from’. I took the keys (two of them cabled together as usual) and concluded that they just say that to every customer.

It was cool and damp, a definite chill, walking out to the rental aisle. The Trax is plain-looking, but wholly adequate to the task of hauling my carcass and my bags to the hotel in Houghton. It’s size didn’t inspire me to offer rides to anyone if a bunch of us were heading to a restaurant for lunch or dinner. The inside was basic (it is a rental), but relatively comfortable. I do like a hatchback, and opening the back of the Trax revealed more than enough space for my daypack and wheel-aboard luggage. It would be more than adequate for several bags of groceries or a medium-sized dog (although probably not good for both at once). Given it’s relatively short wheel base and 4-cylinder engine, it’s probably a great rig for use in cities or as a commuter car when you have another vehicle roomy enough to haul your friends and the rest of your stuff around. If this is your only car, you will get to know your friends VERY well.

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Photo by author.

The overall feel of the Trax is cozy. It shares it’s basic platform with the Chevrolet (Made by Daewoo) Sonic, which is classed as a subcompact. When I talked to my wife on the drive, I likened it to a Little Tikes Club Car. I think it’s the effect of the roof pillars curving in as they go up and the relatively tall windows, combined with the car’s narrow stance. The 70” width of the Trax is almost four inches narrower than my Jeep Wrangler and more than an inch narrower than a Honda Civic. If you’re a relatively small person, this shouldn’t be an issue, but my bulkier frame definitely fills things out. I expected these proportions to make the car feel tippy, but despite some enthusiastic driving it felt stable. The ride and handling were comfortable and the two-hour drive (over Michigan roads no less), was a breeze.

It snowed overnight (the radio said 7”) but even with that the Trax rolled over the patches of hard-packed snow and ice unperturbed. Arriving at the airport, I snapped a couple of pictures for this article. It’s a fairly plain-jane vehicle, as most Chevrolet’s are. There is an upgraded trim level.  I’ve seen one in a more interesting blue color.  The LS AWD trim (like this one) lists for $22,500, so it’s squarely in the entry-level category.  If you like this form-factor of vehicle with a bit more garnish, Buick offers it dressed in more sophisticated clothing as the ‘Encore’ for about $2,000 more.

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Photo by author.

I’ve often wondered why someone would choose a little cross-over over a sedan or hatchback of approximately the same size. I think the answer is in two parts. The more upright seating position gives the driver or passenger room to stretch out vertically. And the larger wheels and tires offer the ability for a small chassis to ride like something bigger despite the shorter wheelbase. Whatever the reason, after this trip I started seeing more of these, along with the Buick Encore, so there are definitely folks who have embraced them.

Don’t Hate the Crossover

I recently read an article in a leading car magazine where the author derided performance car makers for joining the crossover (CUV) vehicle craze.  He decried the proliferation of style-free mass-market ‘blobs’, made from common components.  I believe the Porsche Macan was the straw that broke this particular camel’s back.  Being something of a car nerd, part of me wanted to join him in his indignity.  But I quickly thought better of it.   Even a relative outsider like me knows that well-known makers like Porsche and Maserati need higher-volume products to make sure the ink on the balance sheet remains black, and these days it seems the the most high-toned european brands will make anything that they think will sell their logos.  Driving machines and marketing machines roll hand-in-hand even if no one wants to admit it.
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Toyota RAV4 — Photo from Toyota Website
In the land of regular drivers (keeping the list price south of $50,000) nearly every manufacturer on the planet has long engaged the CUV buyer.  And drivers have been buying them like nothing else.  Crossovers range in size from the diminutive Honda HRV, to the comparative largess of models like the Chevrolet Traverse.  To me, the smaller end of the spectrum begs to ask why the owner didn’t simply get a hatchback.  By way of example, the BMW X1 seems to be the darling of Silicon Valley.  I saw one on every block the last time I was there.  Small, relatively cheap (for a Beemer), easy to park and easy on gas.  What’s not to like, in the land of the perpetual commuter?
Most of these vehicles are front-wheel drive with transverse-mounted engines.  This is the same FF layout as compact cars, but with taller bodies, suspensions and in most cases taller wheels and tires.  This translates into more upright seating positions, better view of the road, better handling in inclement weather, a better ride on rough roads and more flexibility in the use of interior space than sedans or even the small station wagons which are so popular in Europe.  The manufacturers already had chassis designed for this size/class and only had to adapt the platforms to suit the new market.  It was clearly a win for those engaged in the US market, where small cars seem to struggle.
I was introduced to the segment when we decided to upgrade my wife’s Honda Accord.  We really liked it, and briefly considered a new Accord, but concluded that Michigan winters and the continued deterioration of the road infrastructure probably made a better case for something with more ground clearance and larger wheels and tires.  We had simply seen too many front-wheel drive sedans struggle if the roads weren’t meticulously plowed.  For us, combining the fuel economy of a 4-cylinder engine and the option of all-wheel drive seemed a good compromise between a car and a more truck-like SUV.
We investigated the Mazda CX-3, Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox, Volkswagen Tiguan, Honda CRV, Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Jeep Cherokee and Toyota Rav4.  We also looked at the Ford Edge and Chevrolet Traverse, but decided if we were going to get something that big, we’d get a full-blown SUV.  We drove the Subaru, Honda and Toyota and eventually got the Toyota.  The Rav4 had the all the features we wanted and more than adequate performance.  It also met the crucial criteria of being available with a moonroof and very bright red paint.  That last bit was more critical than you might think.  The Toyota also had a nicer interior than the others and my wife preferred the driver’s seat and position to the Subaru, which was the first runner-up.
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Mazda CX-3 — Photo from the Mazda Website, CX-3 Gallery
The Rav4 served us well.  It drove with ease through two of the coldest and snowiest winters we’ve seen in our adult lives.  Fuel economy hovered in the mid-20s.  It had ample back-seat room for two adults or two massive Britax car seats for the granddaughters  It was comfortable enough for four-plus hour trips and planted enough to take curvy country roads at meaningful pace.  We did eventually end up trading it in for a 4Runner, anticipating that we’d need something to haul our new camper and carry some extra gear.  I’ve since had the opportunity to drive the GMC Terrain and BMW X3, providing an even larger base of comparison.
If you’re like most drivers and can only have one vehicle, then the plethora of crossovers represent a useful compromise between a sedan and an SUV.  Many offer the comfort of a car, with the utility of an SUV.  If you’re in the market for this sort of vehicle, the Rav4 is definitely worth a look.  And don’t let the haters discourage you.  😉
My favorites in this space, in order of preference, are the Subaru Forester (I have a built-in affection for Subarus), the Rav4 and the Honda CRV, although I would test-drive a CX-3 before I made that decision.  They are all well-appointed and good value for money.  If you have the extra coin, splurge for the X3.  Equipped with the cold-weather package, leather seats and metallic paint it squeaks in under $50,000 list and spoils you while doing it, but the rest of the vehicles mentioned in this article are available with stickers in the mid-$20,000 range.

The Good Old Days

I got to talking about cars with my brother a few weeks ago.  He’s an old-school car guy.  In high school he bought and built-up a series of rear-wheel drive, V-8 powered cars that he remembers fondly to this day.  His assertion was that those cars and those times in automotive history were the waning years of the muscle car.  The fading sunset of the glory days of horsepower and hot rods.

 

While I have a lot of affection and respect for my brother, and the cars that we pined for in our youth, I don’t quite agree that we’re doomed to long for the Good Old Days.  In fact, I would submit that if you are looking for a go-faster car that you can live with (or an extreme beast that wants to eat you alive), it may be your finest hour.  Granted, the 60s and 70s were a great time to be a gear-head.  The problem was, I wasn’t old enough drive until the 1980s.  By then, even the ‘fast’ cars had been neutuered by emissions regulations and fuel economy standards.  And the technology to make it fun hadn’t caught up yet.

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Yenko Super Camaro circa 1968 — Photo by Dana Hurt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46095044

But times have changed.  The Camaro IROC-Z from 1987 (a car I lusted after, mightily, but could not afford), made 220 HP.  Granted it made 330 Ft-Lb of torque, and it would burn it’s rear tires with enthusiasm, but that performance is underwhelming at best, in the face of today’s automotive technology.  Going 0-60MPH in 6.8 seconds, the IROC was a bit faster than the 1967 Camaro SS at 8.0.  But that’s still practically anchored to the road compared to a current generation Camaro V6 2LT that makes 335HP and does 0-60 in around 5.3 seconds.  And that’s not the fastest modern Camaro, by an stretch.  My brother would remind me that there were horsepower monsters in the days of yore (like the Yenko Super Camaro), but today we have our own dragons, and they breath fire, straight from the factory.

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Dodge Challenger Hellcat SRT – Photo from Dodge ‘Build Your Own’ page, http://www.dodge.com.

The acceleration and horsepower figures in this comparison also belie the massive improvements made in handling, braking, ride comfort, safety, and drivability.  Advanced ECUs, independent suspension, stability control and ABS all add up to a far more enjoyable and survivable high-performance driving experience.  Granted, we don’t get the white-knuckled terror we once experienced, or the visceral feel of the some of the old gearboxes and steering, but my heart still speeds up when I throw a Subaru WRX into a corner, or pull hard away from a stop light.  If I get a bit too enthusiastic and the car breaks loose, the stability control nanny will invariably step in and help me get it back in line.  It’s not an excuse for poor driving skill or a license to throw good judgement out the window, but it’s nice to have a margin of error so a little mischief behind the wheel doesn’t automatically lead to a horrible accident.

We get all these benefits in addition to better fuel economy and lower emissions than ever.  I know my brother would say that all of the sensors and computers that make new cars so good also make them harder to work on, since everything is buried under a layer of software and wiring.  But even that appeals to the nerd in me.  If something burps, I can plug in the scanner and make the car tell me what it thinks is wrong.  Armed with that information I can take my car (still under warranty) to the dealer or shop and they can’t tell me a story about something that doesn’t make any sense.  The tech isn’t a panacea, but it’s a tool we simply didn’t have before.

Is today a golden age for those who want to go fast or at least have a little fun?  Maybe.  While the genuinely superlative super car is out of reach for most of us, every car brand has a performance-oriented model within the reach of those who still have to put food on the table, pay a mortgage and balance a checkbook.  There are performance driving schools popping up everywhere (please get training).  And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that even a run-of-the-mill car today can outperform some of the beloved performance models of days gone by.  After all you can buy a Chevy Malibu or Toyota Camry right now that makes more than 250HP and will run 0-60 in six seconds.

 

Lemonade, an Impala, and Paradise Found

I’m writing this, sitting in the front seat of a 2016 Chevy Impala.  My rental car.  This isn’t usually where I like to do most of my work.  However, the car is my office and my hangout for the day.  At least the waves crashing on the beach, the sound of seagulls, and the view of the Pacific make it more than palatable.  Besides, the alternative was a hotel lobby or airport terminal.  Life is about choices.

The nice folks at the airline delivered me, after much delay, on the first leg of my journey home (San Francisco to Detroit, via LAX), but cancelled my connecting flight.  And thus, I was left in the terminal at LAX with either a long line or an interminable wait on hold.  I stood in line until 1:30am and stayed on hold for more than two hours.  No help was forthcoming.  So, I booked a hotel room and set off to get some rest.  The next morning, I awoke and called the company travel office.  There were no flights until late evening, and that would only get me as far as Chicago.

So, I booked a rental car and took the hotel shuttle to the airport.  They delivered me to the rental car lot where I found the Impala.  I’ve always liked the look of this car, and having test-driven it’s smaller stable-mate, the ironically-named Malibu, I figured it would be good.  As I picked my way (badly) through the city to Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), I considered its merits.  The car responded ably.  The seats were comfortable and easily adjusted, and the ride was compliant without wallowing too much when the road was uneven.  Smiling, I kept heading North and West, away from the concrete jungle.  Winding along the highway, past Pepperdine University and up through Malibu, I felt the aggravation of missing most of a weekend with my family, and stress of yesterday’s delays, melt away.  I was by far not the only person affected by the travel issues.  Why let it get me down?  It was a sunny day; I wasn’t hostage in an airport.

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2016 Chevrolet Impala – Photo by author, Decker Canyon Rd, Malibu, CA

After driving a bit, I came upon Deckard Canyon Rd.  Though I was pretty hungry by now, I wanted to drive just a bit more before I ate.  I’ve driven a couple of these canyon roads before, so I figured it would be fun to drive the twisties again, even in a big car.  I headed up the first winding hill with a sense of relish.  It went away quickly.  The throttle response, in normal driving, is more than acceptable.  There’s enough torque to make it feel like the car is rolling off the ball of your foot.  But not on a steep canyon road.  The engine response was mushy and labored, and the transmission shifted awkwardly.  The steering, which feels fine in everyday traffic is simply too slow for the switchbacks and the car’s long wheel base.  It wasn’t fun, especially when the road becomes very narrow and very crowded with maniacal cyclists and guys shooting videos of themselves skateboarding down the middle of the road.  My choice was redeemed, however, when I turned around and headed back to the PCH.  The view of the ocean through the canyon was rewarding.

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View of the Pacific from Deckard Canyon Rd — Photo by author

I headed back towards the city, trying to remember where I’d seen signs for restaurants.  The car show here is pleasantly distracting.  Exotics I made note of were a yellow Murcielago, a black Aventedor and his buddy in an equally black Maserati Quattroporte.  There were also endless 911s, a host of Cayennes and G-Wagons, and the first Levante I’ve seen outside of an auto show.

In my search for a pleasant place to eat, I was fortuitously stopped at a red light with a sign above it for the Paradise Cove Beach Club and Cafe.  I had no idea if it would be good, but I was hungry enough to give it a try.  Turning down the winding, narrow drive, I saw signs that repeatedly advised the parking fees for the club and the café.  I figured in this ZIP code eight bucks was a bargain and parked in a lot next to the café, by a pier.  My wait for a table was mercifully brief, given how busy the place looked.  The waiting area, and much of the dining room, is covered with black-and-white photos of celebrities who frequented Malibu when black-and-white pictures were common.  Most of these folks were in their prime when I was drawing pictures with crayons, but it still felt a touch nostalgic.  My mother always said I was an old soul.  A Rock-ola was spinning actual CDs instead of playing music off a hard drive or streaming from the Internet.  No vinyl though.

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Beach Cafe at Paradise Cove — Photo by author

My meal was a feast.  A loaf of sourdough bread half the size of my head (which is something I assure you), and cold draft beer.  That was followed (closely) by a generous filet of blackened swordfish and fries.  They would have gladly given me vegetables, but fries seemed about right for this day.  Everything was excellent, the service was great and the location was, of course, paradise.  If you find yourself wandering the PCH and are hungry (and fancy a walk on a pier), this might be your huckleberry.  The only downside was that the bill may make your eyes water as much as the food does your mouth.  Not the place to eat every weekend, but then again, I don’t live around here.

I’ll head back to the city shortly.  And I’ll try to savor each mile of the coast road on the way back.  It will be many hours before I’m home, but I’m looking forward to seeing my family and spending at least a bit of quiet time before I’m back on the road next week.  I love my job most days, and even when it tries to get me down, I do my best to make lemonade out of the lemons.

Boring Car Review Stuff

If you fancy a Chevrolet Impala, I would rate it rather a bargain for such a large, well-equipped car.  There are however two cautions to keep in mind.

First, this is a big front-wheel drive car, and that makes the handling dynamics something to get used to.  I went to pull away quickly from a stop and ended up lighting up the front tires in an awkward burn-out.  Why the traction control didn’t intervene, I’ll never know (I didn’t disable it).  But when you have a bunch of horsepower driving the front wheels, while the the CG is shifting aft, the results are less than stellar.

The rear visibility leaves a bit to be desired.  The slope from the roof to the trunk lid is shallow (looking a bit like a fastback) and that makes the rear window seem very small from the driver’s position.  The included back-up camera is a welcome help.

As nearly as I can tell the MSRP for a car outfitted like this one (leather seats and V6 engine) is about $34,000.