Driving Vs Flying, and Magic, Every Day

The wife and I recently completed a three-day trip to New Mexico, where we found and (hopefully) settled on our next house.  It was a 729-mile trip each way, which Google Maps calculates to be 12 hours and 42 minutes.  On the way down, we accomplished it in about twelve hours.  On the way back, we turned it up…to eleven.  Eleven hours. That’s an average of 66.27–repeating, of course–miles per hour, including time stopped for gas, restrooms, and food.

Quick stats: the Porsche averaged over 26 miles per gallon on the trip with a highway cruising speed of over 80 mph.  Check out the numbers from the last tank of gas, which took us from Holbrook, NM all the way home to Las Vegas:

The average speed HAD been over 80, but an accident on I-95 in Henderson
crushed our numbers right at the end of the trip.

There was plenty of space for the two of us and our gear (the rear seats in the 911 are often derided or overlooked in the press, but owners will tell you they are incredibly useful), there was always an excess of power available for passing even at elevations as high as 7,797 feet, and as always the ease of outward visibility in the 911 made it easy to maintain awareness of nearby traffic.  Are there better long-distance cruising cars out there?  Certainly, but the Porsche would crush them on a track.  When it is said that the 911 is the world’s best, and perhaps only, go-every-day do-everything supercar, it is said with very good reason.

While all this is impressive–or at least I think it is–you might be saying, ugh, that’s a lot of driving.  And you’d be right.  But you can’t put a price on freedom, flexibility, and memorable experiences, and those are things that cars have always given their owners.

In this case, the plan was to make the trip from December 28 through December 31.  To fly commercial, we’d have had to shoehorn our schedules (and wallets, no doubt) into whatever allowed us to get into and out of El Paso around those dates.  Once in El Paso, we’d have had to rent a (crappy) car and drive two hours to our small-town destination.  As it turned out, we finished house-hunting early and were ready to leave on the 30th.  If we’d been bound by airline tickets, there’d have been no sense paying fees to change everything last-minute.  We’d have lost a whole day that we were instead able to spend at home (on New Year’s Eve, no less), plus spent extra money on an extra twenty-four hours of hotel and car rental.  Since we’d driven, it was simple: call the front desk the night before to notify them of our planned early check-out, hop in the car the next morning, and vanish toward the horizon.

Among the memorable experiences on our journey:

1) What looked to be a wolf sprinting across the road about a hundred yards in front of us

2) Our discovering that gasoline is wicked cheap in New Mexico at just $2.95 or so per gallon for regular, or about $3.19/gal for premium

3) Noting that the police in Springville, Arizona drive brand-new Ford Explorers which are no doubt paid for in part by the 10% effective tax rate on soft ice cream

Ridiculous.

4) Finding a surplus military deuce-and-a-half truck with a “For Sale” sign in the front window at that same McDonald’s

5) And lastly, our passing by the National Radio Astronomy Laboratory’s Very Large Array.

Those dishes may look small from the road, but each one is 82 feet in diameter.
Each one is rendered in 3D on Google Earth at coordinates 34.076266,-107.621469.

You don’t get any of that stuff when packed into an aluminum tube with a hundred strangers all gasping on shared recycled air.  Unless it’s just entirely too far and entirely unfeasible, I will always take a long drive in my Porsche over a date with TSA.

Oh, and the next day, I hand-washed the Porsche from top to bottom until it gleamed, then had it valet-parked at the MGM Signature for New Year’s Eve in downtown Las Vegas.  Engineered for magic every day indeed.

Farewell, Saab

Saab filed for bankruptcy this past Monday after nearly a year of desperately trying to keep its head above rising financial waters.  The automobile company Bob Lutz describes in his most recent book Car Guys Versus Bean Counters as a “lonely, undernourished wallflower” made just one real sports car in its lifetime (the 1966-1974 Type 97 Sonett) and was never a financial or performance powerhouse.  Still, it’s a terrible thing whenever any car company dies, and I shed especially sad tears for poor underdog Saab.  It was a brand with style and 21st-century potential.

The reason Lutz mentions Saab in his book is of course because the company was owned by GM from 1989 until 2010.  GM wanted a “premium European” brand in the late 80’s, and Saab was all that was available/affordable at the time.  Unfortunately, GM as an organization did not understand what attracted Saab loyalists to their cars–the word most commonly used for that attractive quality is “quirkiness”–and was also unable to enforce cost-saving engineering edicts upon the Swedes.  The brand became a self-replenishing red-ink well in GM’s accounting books.  Saab’s automobiles became little more than re-badged, restyled Chevrolets where the only unique and possibly “quirky” parts were expensive and invisible to the consumer.  Worse, as GM didn’t quite know how to make a Saab that appealed to the loyalists, the product portfolio was never refreshed and became stagnant.  The Saab 9-5 that came out and was competitive in 1997 was almost exactly the same when it was finally replaced after the 2009 model year.  Who would buy a “new” car with twelve-year-old engineering?

Finally, however, GM cut Saab loose via a slow separation process which began in late 2008.  The Swedes were so thrilled to be free of the General that they immediately started hinting about the long-overdue new 9-5.  It would share a fair number of components with GM products, but one thing was incredibly new and different: the new car’s design was inspired.  Striking.  It was clear that someone wanted Saab to be as good as it ever was.

The new 9-5 was a fine piece of engineering and design work and as a vehicle, certainly a viable alternative to the equivalent Mercedes/BMWs/Audis, especially if the buyer didn’t want to see a dozen clones of himself before leaving his subdivision in the morning.

The thing is, if you’d been paying attention, the new 9-5 was the pièce de résistance.  Despite languishing in many ways under inattentive GM, Saab had quietly placed its badge on a small but significant number of good cars in the mid-2000’s.  The 2005-2006 9-2X, while despised by Saab loyalists for not being a “real Saab,” was actually a better-looking, better-driving Subaru WRX wagon with the same performance chops and aftermarket tunability.  What’s not to love?

Saabaru vs. Subaru

The next Saab home run came in 2008 when the Swedes sent the United States 600 examples of a flawless black-on-black gem: the 9-3 Turbo X.  Pushing 11.6psi of boost through its turbocharger manifold, it made 280 horsepowers, 295 torques, and featured an electronic differential which could throw power to their rear axle, causing Car & Driver to remark that “playful oversteer is easily invoked with simple throttle modulation.”  Even better, the Turbo X was available in SportCombi (wagon) form with a six-speed manual.

The 9-3 Turbo X.  How cool are those wheels?!

The problem with all of these cars, especially the 9-5 and the 9-3 Turbo X, was not how they drove or looked, but how high their sticker prices were.  Crippled by high operating/production costs and a need to be equipped with premium-segment gizmos and interior materials, they were priced too high and advertised to little to be visible to the mass market, which was busy lusting after the Merc/BMW/Audi trifecta.  Saab, in truth, just wasn’t as good as the Germans, nor did it have the brand cachet, but the cars were priced as if it was and did.  It was a strategy and situation doomed to failure.

The upside of Saab’s bankruptcy is that all of those good, recent cars should suddenly be worth somewhat less on the open market.  There are those who fear being without a warranty and/or don’t know that their Saab can easily be serviced at most any GM (or Subaru, if you’ve got a 9-2X) dealership.  I would be surprised to see a GM shop turn down service on even a new, post-GM 9-5; again, the platform is Epsilon II–same as the Buick Regal/LaCrosse, among others–and many of the parts bolted to it come from the GM bin.  Still, dealers such as True Saab have already re-listed their new inventory for as much as $10k off MSRP.  This means that you can get a rare, modern, attractive car for far less than you’d pay for its equivalent, more ubiquitous competitors.

As for me personally, I know there aren’t may wagons out there with clutch pedals, let alone wagons with clutch pedals and all-wheel-drive, wrapped up in a package that burdens its underhood horses with less than fourteen pounds each.  The 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi XWD is on my family-car list.

“SENNA” ON NETFLIX INSTANT!

I don’t know how far behind the times I am on this, but the English-language version of “Senna,” the documentary film depicting the life and F1 career of Aryton Senna, arguably the greatest racing driver who ever lived, is now available to watch instantly on Netflix.I just finished with it and it was utterly excellent.  The drama is compelling, the footage is painstakingly pieced together and always relevant, the interviews are poignant and emotional–it’s just a fantastic piece of cinematic work from beginning to end, whether cars and F1 racing interest you or not.

My recommendation: see it immediately.

Rennsport Reunion IV – Part 5: The Event

Mazda Raceway Leguna Seca is an amazing place.  If there were an Olympus for the car gods, Leguna Seca would be it.  You get there by leaving your hotel in Monterey and climbing near-vertically up an imposing slope, often through the low-hanging marine clouds.  When you emerge into the sunshine, there it is: eleven corners and 2.238 miles of raucous racing bliss.

Now, typically when I see a Porsche on the street, it brightens my day a bit.  It is therefore difficult to express the boundlessness of my joy when I see thirteen hundred Porsches in the parking corrals at Leguna Seca.  That’s one thousand, three hundred.  Every color, every level of customization and modification, every year, every type imaginable.  It was fantastic.

Yeah.  That’s just one of the corrals.  There were several.

The first thing we stumbled upon when we first arrived on Friday was part of the 911-specific display.  I say “part” because there were 38 cars in the display, so they weren’t all in the same place.  These weren’t museum Porsches either–these were PCA member cars, driven hard and impeccably maintained by loving owners.

I think this one was my favorite of this particular group.  A 1997 Turbo S Coupe, blue turquoise on black, with yellow calipers and matched yellow seat belts.  You laugh at the seat belt thing for about five seconds, and then you realize a) how awesome it is and b) that you want some caliper-color-matched belts too.  But wait, how could this be my favorite when right next to it is a bright yellow 964 RS America?  And when immediately to the right of this picture is a brand-new GT3RS 4.0?  Impossible to say.  Like Michael says in Office Space, “I guess I kinda like ’em all.”

I wasn’t going to tease you with “brand-new GT3RS 4.0” and then not deliver a picture.

Limited by the temperament of the children, we were not able to sit and carefully watch any of the weekend’s races.  Still, the glorious howl of the engines and the sight of some of the most timeless, most iconic cars in automobile and racing history hurtling purposefully along one of the greatest tracks in the world was a truly epic experience.

Saturday morning was a bit foggy, but that couldn’t dampen our spirits–all that did was lend some seasonally appropriate Halloween spookyness to my pictures.

Of course, the highlight of the visit for our boys was meeting Sally Carrera from the Disney/Pixar film “Cars.” She was on display in the “Porsche Park in the Paddock,” which also included a stage, a full-size movie screen, a fully stocked biergarten, the new 991s, and the 918 RSR.

The last three pictures there aren’t actually mine.  I have a very similar one of the 918 RSR with the boys sitting in front of it, but you’re here for the cars, not the kids.  I confess to not taking any pictures of the 991s, figuring Porsche would release plenty of higher-quality shots of their own.  They have, but I’m still kicking myself for not having some pictures I can call my own.

Lastly, the racecars.  Of course they were all studies in pure awesomeness, and I’m disappointed in myself for not bringing home more pictures.  Still, I got enough to drool over for awhile.

Gulf-liveried 917s.  If you haven’t seen Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans,” just get on it.
The GT1 during the parade.
The 2011 Flying Lizard Le Mans GT3 RSR.  The pit crew were  showing off demo pit stops on this car, changing all four tires in right around 9 seconds.
RS Spyder, now-retired king of the ALMS LMP2 class.

That about sums up the RR4 coverage.  We’ll put this trip to bed with the final installment, Part 6, which will cover the return home back through Yosemite with more time to gape at the surroundings.

Passat TDI versus 458 Italia

Am I the only one that’s noticed this?

Both the supercar Ferrari 458 Italia and the proletarian Volkswagen Passat have the vanes (or as Ferrari calls them, “aeroelastic winglets”…la-dee-FRICKIN DAH) in the lower front!  Obviously the 2012 Motor Trend Car of the Year needs the additional downforce this little touch provides just as much as the Ferrari does.  Right?
Actually, to beat the 458 in a cross-country or endurance test, I doubt if it would.  The Ferrari has a 22.7-gallon tank and gets an EPA-measured 12mpg city, 18mpg highway.  The Passat TDI has an 18.5-gallon tank and gets 31/43mpg.  So the Passat goes 795.5 miles between stops, whereas the Ferrari can only manage 408.6.  Assuming max range cruise speed and no traffic or potty breaks, the 458 would have to stop 8 times for gas on the way from the Montauk Point Lighthouse to the Santa Monica Pier.  The Passat only needs 4 stops.  The Passat’s passengers would be atop the Ferris wheel while the Ferrari’s crew would be back somewhere looking for an exit ramp.
Honestly, if I had to own a car with aeroelastic winglets (or their look-alikes), I’d rather have the Passat.  The Ferrari would be great to drive once or twice, but living with it day-to-day would be tiresome–no rear seats, no cargo space, silly steering wheel, expensive service, and, oh, right, I’d always have to worry about it spontaneously bursting into flame.

Back East

Recently my mom’s mom passed away, so I made the journey home to the East Coast for the funeral and some family time.  For good or ill, I can’t shut off the ‘car’ part of my brain even for such weighty occasions, so I came away from the trip as I always do a few automobile-related experiences and observations.

First, I bought a “duPont Registry” magazine at the airport Hudson News store to read on the airplane.  I usually manage to avoid doing this because as you know if you’ve ever bought one, it is not a actually a magazine but a 250-page collection of advertisements for cars and dealerships that sell cars no 99-percenter can afford.
I caved this time around because the December 2011 issue has some lovely renderings of TechArt-modded 997s on the cover.  On one hand, I hate TechArt for doing what they do to Porsches, with their ridiculous body kits and huge wheels, but on the other hand, the Fast and Furious part of me thinks they are pretty cool in that tuner-ish kind of way.  Still, I could never take my exquisite hunk of bulletproof German engineering to some random garage where they would hack it all up, cover it with cheap fiberglass, slap dub-deuces on it, and remap the ECU to make OVER 9000!!!! horsepower (for the three seconds before the whole engine comes apart).
Anyway, there was nothing interesting to a mere mortal like myself in the DR mag EXCEPT for two specific ads: one on page 75 and one on page 190.  On 75, a law office offers to help you register your vehicle in Montana to avoid sales tax and numerous other government charges.  On 190, there’s a similar ad for a service that does the same sort of thing, except in Alaska.
These piqued my interest because the massive downside to buying a car (new or used) from a dealership in the state of Nevada, where I currently reside, is that you pay the standard 8.3% state sales tax on the transaction.  According to blog.truecar.com, a sales tracking website, the average transaction for a new, typical passenger vehicle in the US is right around $30,000.  The add-on tax a buyer would have to pay to complete that transaction would be $2,500.  Ridiculous.  So even if these advertised services charge $500 or so,  you’d still save two grand!  I’m going to follow up on these at some point, and I’ll pass along my findings.
Item two from the trip East comes from a drive I had in my mom’s first-gen TSX.  Her car is unfortunately saddled with an automatic transmission, which is the same thing as buying the Baltimore Ravens and then immediately trading away Ray Rice.  It’s still a strong franchise, but you missed out on the most vital part.
I did both some back-road and some highway driving in both day and night for around ninety minutes total time behind the wheel.  Conclusions: the suspension tuning is indeed excellent.  The steering is as precise as it can be for a front-engine, front-drive car, but quickly gives way to understeer, as would be expected.  The engine note is definitely not in line with the lofty goals of a ‘premium’ brand, and the engine performance is certainly not overwhelming, though the throttle response is quick.  According to the mileage computer displayed on the dashboard, the car averages 24-25 mpg in mixed driving on the required premium fuel.  Interestingly, the 5-speed auto has a better EPA mileage rating than the 6-speed manual (19/22 versus 20/23).
On cars.com right now, first-gen TSXs with manual gearboxes and
less than 60k miles are floating around in the $17-20k list price range with the main differentiator being the presence of a nav system, which was the only noteworthy option available from the factory.  That seems a bit high given the recent glut of high-quality small cars that have come from a number of manufacturers, both foreign and domestic.  The price of a used TSX doesn’t seem to have adjusted for this fact, as my mom could probably sell hers fairly quickly for about what she paid for it a year ago.  Still, it’s a decent car with a phenomenal manual gearbox, and if you can find a clean one for under $17k (don’t forget about the tax!), it’s a solid buy.
Back to the airport for me.  Can’t wait to get home to my wife, kids, and my new car mags, which came in the mail while I was gone.