Chicago Auto Show 2017

Downtown Chicago.  The McCormick Center.  It is, as most big-city convention centers are, a massive facility, and this one is especially well-suited to the rigors of being home to the Chicago Auto Show.  Despite its daunting square footage, it is laid out quite simply.  One can almost glimpse the entirety of the show from a single vantage point, preferably atop a tall ladder, as the curvature of the Earth comes into play.

Thirty-three automakers plied their wares from amongst the 75,000 square feet of space.  Some commanded more acreage than others, some were more varied and complex than others, but no display was more impressive overall than the combined effort put forth by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.  There was a drag strip for Dodge, and by God they smoked tires on it every few minutes, all day.  There was a “work site” for Ram with cranes and cargo.  There was a kids’ play area celebrating the shapely Chrysler Pacifica (Did I just call a minivan “shapely”? Yes, I did).  Amongst all this marketing fantasy, though, one brand stood out: Jeep.


With some enormous steel bridge-arches, at least a ton of synthetic mulch, a pile of boulders, two flights of stairs, and one big breakover-test ramp, Jeep easily grabbed the show trophy for “Most Indefatigable.”  Then they tucked the trophy under one arm, put on a gratuitous spin move that shattered both of Toyota’s ankles, and sprinted out the door toward real adventure.  One of the highlights of Toyota’s square footage was a demo of a Highlander auto-sensing and avoiding an oncoming shopping cart in a parking lot—LAME.  Jeep’s display, by high contrast, featured Cherokees and Grand Cherokees (in Trailhawk spec) alongside some Wrangler Unlimited Rubicons (roof panels removed) clambering up and over all of the above-mentioned obstacles.  For the Wranglers, it was hardly a challenge—their axle articulation is such that the terrain just disappeared beneath the differential hubs and emerged defeated behind the rear bumpers.  For the Cherokees and Grand Cherokees, things were a bit more dramatic: one or another wheel would find itself airborne, but then the AWD system would route torque elsewhere and defeat the obstacle.  Great fun to watch, certainly—but even more fun to ride along and experience, as I did with my son beside me, both of us giggling madly the whole time.

As American automobile brands go, Ford might be the plucky turbocharging favorite that didn’t need a taxpayer bailout to survive in 2008.  Chevrolet might be the full-spectrum heavyweight.  And Dodge might be the crazy yet lovable uncle that always asks, “That thing gotta Hemi?”  But right now, with a great lineup and sales surging, Jeep feels like the Lewis & Clark expedition, an Iowa-class battleship, Mount Rushmore, and, well, a Jeep.  There ain’t much that is more unstoppably American than that.


The List, January 2017

It’s a sickness—I’m always thinking about what car I’d have next.  If the 996 C4S were the last car I ever owned, life would still have been lived quite to the fullest…but there’s always that nagging bit of wonder…

Be wary–this list has no limitations other than the cars mentioned being relatively affordable (on the used market anyway) and having at least four seats.

Mercedes GLA45: The top-spec GLA, ramming over 26 psi of turbo boost into its four cylinders and then disgorging the excess out the exhaust in a manner befitting a .22 long rifle.  PROS: High-end hot hatch exterior looks; hilarious tailpipe acoustics; somewhat rare.  CONS: Cramped interior; tacked-on center infotainment screen; still pretty expensive.


Lincoln MKZ Thoroughbred Drivers’ Package: Lincoln’s Audi fighter with a 3.0L turbo six, AWD, and the rear diff from the Focus RS.  PROS: A somewhat rare car that visually stands apart while remaining easily serviceable; remarkable performance from an unexpected comer. CONS: Lacking rear-seat headroom; aging body style (it’s really just a Fusion with a new grille); appalling depreciation (but hey, I could turn that around, make it work for me).

Mercedes E400 Coupe: Slinky new (model year 2018) 2-door with ample room for four, sporting the turbo six from the C400.  PROS: Gorgeous inside and out—the best or nothing, with that F1-dominating badge. CONS: Some passengers will inevitably have to clamber into the rear seats; expensive—new-for-2017 refresh still a couple years from coming off-lease.


Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 3.2 (2015+): FCA’s right-size, right-time crossover with a risky front-end look and some quality issues.  PROS: Easy to get price/availability-wise; lots of utility for the money; those red tow hooks! CONS: Questionable long-term trustworthiness and reliability.

Audi A6 3.0T (2013+): Handsome, conservative sedan. The lowest-priced “real” Audi. PROS: Classic, never-tire-of-it look; lots to choose from; fairly common yet capable VW engine/powertrain combo giving solid performance. CONS: The aspirational car of the upwardly mobile masses—not unusual enough.  Like Nic Cage says, “I saw three of these outside my local Starbucks this morning!”

Ford Fiesta ST: The American hot hatch of the automotive press’ dreams.  PROS: Clever engineering, great gas mileage, cheap to buy and maintain, fun!  CONS: Cramped, cheap interior; exterior a bit dowdy too.

Chevrolet Volt (Gen 2): The nameplate advanced enormously in its second generation. PROS: Brilliant engineering; phenomenal gas mileage; nice to look at both inside and out. CONS: Still not an enthusiast car in the traditional sense—the 60-80 passing maneuver on the highway will remain fraught with peril.


BMW X1 or X3 xDrive35i: The X1 is frugal and spacious, while the X3 (35i spec) is sleeper-quick.  PROS: Modern, capable BMW engines.  CONS: Modern, capable BMW engines, likely to blend themselves on the “frappe” setting the day the warranty expires.

Ford Flex EcoBoost (2013+): The hidden gem of the Ford lineup—a seven-passenger rocket sled that depreciates like crazy because of the polarizing (but secretly awesome) look.  PROS: That engine; that interior space.  CONS: Wacky SYNC infotainment system; ride a bit flinty.


Chevrolet SS: The classic big, (somewhat) cheap, rear-drive V8 American sedan.  PROS: All of the following letters and numbers: 6.2L LS3 V8.  CONS: Interior in any color you want (as long as it’s black); steering wheel from a first-gen Volt (a shameless parts-bin car).

Chrysler 300 SRT8 (2013+): The OTHER classic rear-drive V8 American sedan.  PROS: It’s got a Hemi; makes that Hemi noise; sometimes has those achingly beautiful “black chrome” wheels.  CONS: Having trouble here…fuel economy?  Yeah, we’ll go with that.


Fiat 500e: Over $32k new, now trading in the $10k range, this is the small pure-electric that Sergio Marchionne didn’t want you to buy (FCA lost $14k on every single one sold).  PROS: The best-looking 500, does silent electric FWD burnouts!  CONS: Range anxiety; quite small both inside and out; top speed of 85 mph; all of the used ones are in California.

Jaguar XJ (2013+): Sneakily, the best XJ has long been the shorter-wheelbase, lighter, supercharged V6 model.  PROS: Sumptuous interior; engine worthy of much newer cars (F-Type).  CONS: Reliability.  And my reputation as “trustworthy” would likely take a hit.


Runners-Up: 2014 Cadillac CTS VSport, Audi SQ5, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, Mitsubishi Evo MR-Touring, Porsche Panamera (2011+ V6 RWD), 2014 Audi allroad.

Choose wisely.

RallyCross Nationals 2016


The SCCA is racing for the pure joy of racing. There’s no fanfare, there’s very little coverage or recognition, and a sizeable chunk of it isn’t even wheel-to-wheel.  It’s grass-roots, rain or blazing sun, spend your own money and break your own stuff, follow the voluminous rules, better show up because you need the wheel time or someone else will get better… in fact, it seems a lot like work in some ways.  But as a thickly muscled man once roughly opined, “for those few seconds, I’m free,” and that alone is reason enough for the SCCA to exist and for its membership to endure the hardships, muster up, and get out there to compete.

Central Iowa certainly doesn’t have much in the way of racetracks, but what it does have is a wide selection of fields. Someone up in the SCCA hierarchy must have stumbled upon this fact, because they came to the correct conclusion when trying to decide on the best place to hold Rallycross Nationals around the end of September every year: Indianola, Iowa.

My membership in the SCCA had lapsed, so I paid my back dues and got current again. I took the weekend off from work and made the short drive down to the Balloon Festival fields in Indianola over the first Saturday and Sunday in October to witness the scene.

If you hadn’t heard of Rallycross before, just think of autocross—driving around cones in a parking lot—but replace the parking lot with a grassy field.  Yeah.  Just blew your mind there, huh? The surface changes on every run. There are significant elevation changes in play. There’s morning dew, evening showers, and hot dusty middays in between. Event organizers are constantly tweaking the course layout for both safety and entertainment purposes.  And of course, the venue itself is much tougher on the cars than any mere parking lot would be.


The first thing I gaze upon as I arrive is a Nissan Skyline R32, just parked on the side of the same dirt road as everyone else, no big deal. Then I noticed the legion of Subarus, from late-90’s Impreza RS 2.5s to the latest WRX STIs and everything in between, including a unicorn in the shape of a three-pedal Forester XT.  Mazda had a strong showing, with the SCCA-standard-bearing Miata a common sight. Are you concerned that Ford might not be selling enough of its brilliant Fiesta ST? Worry not, the SCCA people are buying it in bulk. One driver flew in, rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee at the airport, and entered competition.  And lastly, my quirky favorite was a yappy little Fiat 500 Abarth with a “Ferrari of Indianola” sticker on its rear bumper.


They ran the Saturday morning session in one field, the Saturday afternoon session in another, and on Sunday linked both courses together for longer laps.  The cars were classed into Stock (no mods, DOT-approved street tires), Prepared (slight mods, non-DOT tires), and Modified (just has to look like the car it used to be), and further divided into front-, rear-, or all-wheel drive groups.  I watched a Scion FR-S light its rears up at launch, spraying gobs of dirt all over the decklid of the poor Miata lined up patiently behind it.   The starter just laughed, waited the prescribed interval, then green-flagged the Miata with the words, “Go get ‘im.”  The Scion won its class for the weekend, so his must be a winning strategy.  Noted.


I found myself welcomed by a couple of fellow spectators, one of whom was kind enough to share the five-hundred-plus pictures he took over the course of the weekend.  The Rallycross folks were a tight-knit group.  The effort to put on these events is shared by the participants, so everyone is in it together.  This probably contributes to the lack of drama that pervades the vast majority of SCCA events.

Rallycross is intriguing.  Like Autocross, it’s accessible to anyone who can afford a slightly expensive hobby.  Also like Autocross, it has the depth and breadth to consume a participant long past their first time out.  Unlike Autocross, it actually does have a professional analogue in Red Bull Global RallyCross where teams named ‘Andretti’ and ‘Ganassi’ pay drivers to race at venues around the world (well, okay, mostly around the US).  On one hand, the challenge, the relative accessibility, and the pure spectacle of Rallycross are attractive lures (look at these pictures!).  On the other, the certainty of bending metal is a bit of a barrier (eeeesh, look at that picture there).


The undeniable reality, though, is that this is a no-kidding national-level motorsport competition, held annually, right in our own back yard.  There were already a couple of Porsches in attendance, but I don’t think anyone would mind if suddenly there were a few more.


Black Label


You didn’t know Lincoln makes a 400hp, 400lb-ft, AWD Audi-killer?  You are forgiven, because the base-model MKZ is a snooze-fest.  Admittedly it’s a better-looking snooze-fest lately, now that the front fascia has been upgraded from “hideous” to “Continental.”  Still, snooze-fest cars don’t merit column-inches around here.

However, spec the MKZ as Black Label, and click the boxes for 3.0T, AWD, and Driver’s Package, and you’ve got a genuine sports sedan.  Ford Motor Company bores out their 2.7L EcoBoost V6 to three liters just for you, Mr. or Mrs. Lincoln Customer, and links the rear tires to the drivetrain via the twin hydraulically-operated, electronically-controlled 7-pack clutches in the rear differential.  That rear diff is shared with everyone’s new favorite hot hatchback, the Focus RS.  In the RS application, the diff can route 100% of the rearward-fired torque (up to 70% of the engine’s total torque output) to either one of the rear wheels—the same should be expected in the MKZ Driver’s Package.

The rear diff.

The combination of the 3.0T and that beautiful differential means that when you’re on your test drive and decide to beat a grungy 350Z with an atrocious body kit around a corner and onto a ramp, you can do so effortlessly.  And your sales guy, who might tragically be somewhat over-accustomed to FWD MKZ 2.0Ts, will be a bit startled and amazed at how easy it all was.  Well, that was my experience, anyway.

“Black Label” is something of a lifestyle choice, or at least that’s how Lincoln pitches it.  The fringe benefits include annual detailing, “reservation assistance” at some high-class restaurants, and a 4-year/50,000 mile maintenance plan that actually DOES cover normal-wear items.  But the real reason you want Black Label is the luscious interior themes, and on the MKZ, there are three: Thoroughbred, Chalet, and Vineyard.


I had the pleasure of driving a Thoroughbred MKZ, and while black interiors are not my favorite (Chalet would be my pick), opening the enormous dual-panel panoramic roof brightened up the experience more than enough to allow me to overcome my personal bias.  The roof doesn’t just let light in—the glass slides almost completely back, so you can enjoy a convertible-like experience.  The Chestnut Leather on the center console and dash is rich and sumptuous, and all Black Label MKZs offer an amazing 20-speaker Revel Ultima Audio setup by HARMAN.  I’d like to dig into the audio system a bit more, but what I briefly toyed with was pretty impressive.

The blessing and curse of this car is that “MKZ Black Label Driver’s Package 3.0T AWD” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and there’s been very little “buzz” surrounding this MKZ since it was announced at the LA Auto Show last November.  This means the cars are—and will likely remain—pretty uncommon, and you’ll probably have to place an order to get what you want (you want all the elements mentioned above, and you want the panoramic roof…you can probably do without all of the semi-autonomous options).  Ordering it means you’re paying market value, which is probably pretty close to MSRP, which is mid-to-high fifties, which is rather a lot for an up-engineered Ford Fusion with a gigantic plastic key fob and not a ton of rear-seat headroom.

On the other hand, instead of being a “snooze-fest,” this spec of MKZ is inarguably the most current dictionary definition of “sleeper.”  It’s the most powerful Lincoln ever.  It is no-joke fast and sounds impressive from behind the wheel.  The 6-speed SelectShift gearbox shifts smoothly, positively, and fairly quickly with a tug on one of the wheel-mounted paddles.  In Sport mode, the transmission holds gears as long as you like, and throttle mapping and suspension settings are adjustable from the in-dash menus.  Every time you open the trunk you’re treated to a reminder that yours is not a snooze-spec MKZ; there’s some extra bracing back there to help that trick rear diff get power to the tarmac.  It works—around uneven corners and over heaves in the pavement, the car remains steady, composed, and unflappable.

The two facts: a) that Lincoln wants mid-fifties for one of their cars and b) that the very proposition is not completely laughable, coalesce to indicate a very good thing.  Ford has been pouring money back into the Lincoln brand for a few years now, and it seems the return on investment has begun to trickle in.  Yes, this is an up-engineered Fusion, but it’s a worthy competitor to an A6 or a CTS Vsport or a 535i.  And because Lincoln has been nigh-invisible for so long, it’s not likely that you’ll be seeing many of these during your commute.  Lincoln is well and truly back, and now you’re among the first to know.  Check it out.



Bavarian Bounce-Back

With the arrival of the turbocharged 991.2 Carrera (which is apparently brilliant), the classic rear-engined Porsche now starts at prices north of ninety grand.  That’s all fine and dandy if you’ve got that sort of dough, but your humble author does not, and therefore his eyes will sometimes find themselves wandering from their favored marque to gaze at more attainable brands.

One such brand is BMW.  While the Bavarians placed themselves in a rough spot in the not-too-distant past, aiming for compliance and mass appeal over visceral driver enjoyment (cough cough numb F30 3-series steering, cough cough fake engine noise through the speakers in the turbo M5), they seem to have somewhat regained their poise of late.

Full disclosure: what got me in the door to the just-renovated showroom at my local dealer was the redesign of the X1.  What was formerly a small rear-drive wagon is now, horribly, a not-a-real-BMW super-trendy small luxury crossover with a Mini Cooper S engine and a front-wheel-drive platform.  Fellow blogosphere resident says the X1 “for purists…is an abomination; an affront to everything E46 M3 owners hold sacred.”

Fine.  But it’s also a nicely proportioned, efficient runabout with some incredible packaging work done.  Many of these small crossovers are just TOO small, even if they offer decent driving dynamics (looking at you, Mazda CX-3).  With the X1, I could actually pick up my 6’1” father from the airport and not feel bad about putting him in the rear seat, even with the panoramic roof option installed.  His luggage would fit easily into the cargo area, and we could still get home quickly, since the direct-injected 2.0L TwinPower Turbo 4-cylinder makes 258 pound-feet of twist all the way from 1250 to 4500 RPM.  A zero-to-sixty time of 6.3 seconds is nothing to sneeze at (0.2 faster than a ’65 Shelby GT350, among the manliest of manly-man cars), and meantime we would still manage better than 30 MPG highway.

Beyond the X1, though, there’s a raft of other fine vehicles churning out of the Werks in Munich.  The M235i has already scored a place on Car & Driver’s 10Best.  The just-released M2 is garnering plenty of praise.  Jeremy Clarkson chose the i8 over the new M3, but then moments later reverted to form and backed the M3, effectively showering praise on both cars.  The M4 bested a base 991.1 Carrera in a C&D comparison back in summer of 2014 (perhaps urging forward Porsche’s turbocharging-the-base-models program).  The price-leader 320i offers four doors, rear-wheel drive, three pedals, and a shift lever for a very reasonable sum.

It continues as you climb on up the money ladder, too.  For right about the same-sized briefcase-full o’ cash as you’d need for a stripped down 991.2 Carrera 3.0, one could have the very same cylinder count and displacement in a new 740i with a fair number of pretty incredible toys (I think the “Panoramic Sky Lounge LED Roof” is my favorite, or maybe it’s just those beautiful leather seats).  The new 7-series is about as far removed from the bloated last-generation one as it is possible to be—it redefines the concept of long, low, and sleek.  Thanks to a ton of carbon fiber (lessons from the i3 and i8 apply here) in the construction, it trims 285 pounds from its bulbous ancestor.  Unsprung weight drops fifteen percent.  Someone should tell Q Branch that the 7-series is once again ready for double-oh duty.

7-series rear seats

One more Top Gear note—in the final series, the chaps took some fast GT cars to the Australian Outback.  Clarkson himself helmed a BMW M6 Gran Coupe, and had the following to say about it:

“In the early days, BMW’s M cars sounded like 500 yards of ripping calico and they had telepathic steering and they were magnificent. In recent years, though, some of the magic has sort of gone. With this one, though, it is back. It is properly back. God, this is just electrifyingly good.”

Porsche SUVs and Cars 2014-2015_cr edit

So while Porsche becomes an SUV brand (see above) that also makes a few expensive sports cars on the side, it must remember that its competitors have been making reasonably attainable, reasonably high performance vehicles for a long time.  One day when a child sees a 911 and, surprised, asks, “Porsche makes little cars too?”…well…that will be a sad, sad day.

Complexity or Electricity

A few auto-journalist personalities recently published some material that dovetailed rather thought-provokingly.  First was Aaron Robinson of Car & Driver, who penned an article titled “Have We Reached Peak Engine?”  Next was Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez of, who wrote a somewhat less-cleverly-titled piece called “BMW Engines Are Gigantic Pieces of Sh*t.”  Tavarish’s rant sent Road & Track Editor-at-Large Sam Smith into a Twitter flurry that really got me thinking.

The overall thrust of those bits is as follows: internal combustion engines are so boxed-in by a combination of market vector and government regulation that they are becoming too complex and too prone to expensive failure to remain viable in the long term.  This is tragic because very few modern cars, brilliant as they may be in the showroom and on the test drive, will survive long into the future because their very hearts are terribly over-stressed from the moment they begin beating.

In 1997, the newly redesigned Corvette made 345 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque from a 5.7-liter naturally-aspirated V8.  For 2017, Porsche’s 911 Carrera S houses a 3.0-liter horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine that makes 420 horsepower and 368 pound-feet.  That’s 75 more horses and eighteen more torques from an engine barely over half the size of the Corvette’s LS1.

This is, of course, only possible with massive added complexity: twin turbochargers, each with its own manifold, wastegate, and diverter valve, direct injection with the fuel atomized into the cylinders at up to 3625 psi, millions of lines of engine management code, a two-stage water pump for cooling, and an automatic engine stop/start system.  Generally, the more components something has, the more likely it is that one of those components will break.  I shudder for the hapless third owner of a 2017 991.2 Targa 4S who gets a “great deal” on his flashy new-to-him ride in year 2025.  Actually, I do more than shudder—I flee to listings of Lexuses with Toyota’s ubiquitous 3.5-liter V6 in them, because if I’m not already saddled with a car payment I fear I’ll wind up becoming that very same Targa-buying idiot.

But nevermind—the point of all this is that if an automaker wants to build and/or maintain a reputation for long-term reliability, they must consider electric-only cars as central to their future, because electric motor/generators are by their nature just the opposite of the complexity I’ve just described.  They’re very simple things—all you need are some loops of wire, a magnetic field, and some motion.

Porsche does have a reliability reputation worth protecting.  It has shown serious intent to protect that rep by launching itself down the electric path—and investing heavily in its Misson E concept.  Seven hundred million euros have been set aside for Mission E-enabling upgrades to the already-existing factory in Stuttgart.  Workers at that same facility have “agreed to abandon future wage increases along with other concessions totaling several hundred million euros” in order to free up the cash so Porsche can make the Mission E into production reality.  And the car itself, well…just look at it.


The future is those achingly beautiful lines wrapped around an eight-hundred-volt electrical system that produces over six hundred horsepower.  The future silently carries four passengers three hundred miles at speeds up to 155 mph, then recharges back up to 80% range capacity in 15 minutes.  The future is simpler, it’s better, and it’s coming in 2020.  I need to start saving my pennies…and avoiding anything overly complex in the meantime.

NAIAS 2016 – CAFE Before Beauty

The data is coming in from the Year of our Lord 2015, and it is downright rosy.  In the good ol’ U.S. of A., 17.47 million light-duty vehicles were sold last year, more than any other year, ever.  It’s a proud recovery from the subprime-mortgage/credit-default-swap economic disaster of 2008-2009, when auto sales were a mere 10.4 million…a number so staggeringly low it had not been seen since twenty-seven years prior, in 1982.

These glowing numbers, along with the astonishingly low price of oil, which as of this writing is under $28/barrel (the lowest it has been in about 13 years), have automakers licking their chops for 2016.  Cheap barrels of oil mean cheap gasoline at the pump, and this means car-buying consumers will spring for bigger, thirstier, higher-profit-margin vehicles.

With their bottom lines thusly secured, the factories have time and money to experiment with flashy, low-volume propositions, and that means the stuff on the floor at the North American International Auto Show this January is just breathtaking.  So breathtaking, in fact, that on January 23rd, President Barack Obama became only the third sitting President to visit the NAIAS in Detroit.

“Seven years ago,” he tweeted, alongside some stats about the industry, “I bet on American workers and the American auto industry. I’d make that bet again any day of the week.”  He additionally noted in announcing his visit that he wanted to see the industry’s progress “firsthand.”

When you see pictures of the Buick Avista concept, or perhaps the new Ford GT, you realize why he wanted to do that.



I wanna go see those too.

One thing that popped into my head, though, as I saw the oil news and the car-sales news running simultaneously, was that government and industry might soon be at loggerheads over the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.  CAFE is fairly complex and touches on a lot of definitions and measurements and credits (if you’re having trouble sleeping, check the relevant US Code here), but it boils down to the government wanting to “reduce energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks.

CAFE estimated fuel saved

The government’s intent is all well and good, but manufacturers generally want to produce a full spectrum, or full line, of vehicles.  Because of the way the CAFE standards are written, larger vehicles don’t have to make the same MPG as small vehicles, but my understanding is that the manufacturer still has to hit a certain average across its entire range.  Therefore, the manufacturer must fairly accurately forecast how many of each vehicle they will sell, and obviously this can be quite difficult to do.  If, for example, the cheap gas means that suddenly Fiat-Chrysler is selling too many fuel-guzzling Ram pickups and not enough fuel-sipping Dodge Darts, for example, that reality will drag down their corporate fleet MPG average and subject them to federal fines.  Unfortunately that very issue is already causing a problem for that very company.

So while as a car enthusiast I eagerly await the design, and powertrain, and technological largesse that always comes along when the industry is doing well, I also equally hope that the automakers can muster the conservatism and foresight enough to weather the next storm, whatever form it might take.  So bring on those svelte coupes and supercars, guys…but build a few holding tanks in a vault somewhere to stash some liquidity in reserve, huh?

Needless Complexity

This is the article where I jump the shark and become a grumpy old man, shouting for the Millennials to get off my lawn.  Steel yourselves accordingly.

Cars have gotten hilariously over-complex.  It used to be that adding electronics to a car made it better, but we’ve gone far overboard.  Now, the miles of circuitry and wiring are actively making cars worse.

My 1992 Porsche 968 has an owner’s manual that consists of 123 pages.  My 2003 Carrera 4S has a manual with 263 pages (Ah! I wish it were 262—I would henceforth call it the “Schwalbe”).  My 2013 Cayenne Diesel?  349 pages.  The correlation between advancing year and advancing page count is not coincidental.  As the years roll by, cars become ever more computerized, for better and worse—but more for worse of late.

When we add capability to a vehicle (usually a good thing), we also add complexity (usually a bad thing).  For example, it used to be that we had one audio-visual option in a vehicle—an AM/FM radio.  Now we have AUX, USB, Bluetooth, vehicle-borne solid-state hard drives, DVD players, and on and on.  These devices certainly add capability, but they’ve also added complexity, forcing manufacturers to design “infotainment” systems for user management of all these media streams.  Unfortunately, said systems have generally frustrated consumers and resulted in a great deal of negative feedback.   The January 2016 Consumer Reports remarks about the Mazda CX-3, “give yourself some time for mastering the CX-3’s controls…even the most basic functions require lots of taps, twists, and icon deciphering.”  And about the gorgeous new (twincharged!) Volvo XC90, CR says “the large touch-screen console…looks dazzling until you have to operate it.  Almost all audio, climate, navigation, phone, and vehicle settings are integrated via swipe-and-tap commands that are frustratingly unintuitive.  If you buy an XC90, insist on a tutorial.”  These CR folks sound like my kind of people!  Seriously, though,  I could present more examples, but enough inkwells have already run dry in the act of denigrating, say, Cadillac’s CUE or Ford’s MyFord Touch.

In a slightly different vein, a coworker of mine recently related a story about his new third-gen Honda Pilot.  The car features an automatic engine stop/start feature.  I generally favor this particular technological advancement—the sight of cars sitting still with engines idling drives me crazy after two-plus years of Volt ownership—but it comes with its own brand of confusing complexity.  See, when he took his stop/start car to a conveyor-style car wash and put it in neutral, its engine shut off.  This was all fine and dandy until he reached the end of the car wash line.  He couldn’t start it back up in Neutral, so to drive off the line, he had to put it in Park, which means the conveyor system in the car wash battled against his transmission lock until he could get the thing fired up and into Drive.

The Honda engineers had foreseen this, of course, and had devised a “car wash mode” for the Pilot.  To engage it, you simply 1) press and hold the brake pedal, 2) press and release the (N) button (the car has push-button transmission mode selection), and then 3) press and hold (N) again for two seconds.  Now the engine will continue to run in Neutral for 15 minutes.  If the 15-minute timer runs out, the car auto-selects “Park” mode and shuts off.

Got all that?

Cars could still be fast, comfortable, and fuel-efficient without all this unnecessary additional complexity.  Hop on YouTube and watch Chris Harris drive a Ferrari F40, then watch him drive the three new hybrid supercars (P1, 918, LaFerrari).  In which video is he having more fun?  Spoiler alert: it’s the F40.  Doesn’t seem like the lack of Bluetooth in that winged red Ferrari bothers him.  I’ve no cup holders, no cruise control, and naught but a radio in the 968, but the day I took ownership, I drove it cross-country and it was fantastic.

To quote 007: “It’s the newest thing from Q Branch–it’s called a radio!”

It’s been said that the modern automobile is the most complex, highly engineered machine ever handed over to an almost completely untrained operator.  That’s undoubtedly true.  It’s also true that “driver distraction” is a leading cause of vehicle collisions.  Blame the smartphone, but also blame the clunky interface between vehicle and smartphone.  Blame the cup holders.  Blame the massive storage bins.  Blame satellite radio.  All of these are ample wells from whence distraction springs.  Thoreau said “simplify,” and Frank Lloyd Wright deplored excess storage space.  Auto manufacturers should take note.  Our vehicles can be engineered to do incredible and complex things, but none of those incredible and complex things should come between the driver and the act of driving.

My children will drive a manual-transmission 2012-2013 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design.  Why?  Legendary Swedish construction.  Hatchback practicality.  Three pedals and a lever to keep feet and hands occupied.  And no video screens, forcing eyes to the road.  I’ll just shove gum or something into the AUX and USB ports.

Yeah, STAY off my lawn.

One Hundred Thousand



I remember, and will always remember, exactly how many miles were on the odometer when I first sat down in the driver’s seat as the owner of my 996: 37,858.  This past week, a sixth digit column appeared on the display as she cruised through her hundred-thousandth mile.  That seems occasion enough to warrant a retrospective column about just how good she’s been to me through the 62,142-plus miles we’ve spent together.

It’s been nearly five years since that day; five years filled with plenty of ups and downs.  It has never, however, been less than an adventure. In fact, one could say it started with a day on a racetrack, and that of course never fails to be an adventure. So let us begin there, at Buttonwillow International Raceway in Bakersfield, California, on October 1st, 2010.

I was behind the wheel of my 2003 Audi RS6, the car and I were dialed in.  New tires, new brake pads and fluid, new sway bars, and nothing on track in our group could hold a candle to us. A C6 Corvette coupe, a shiny new S5, and a Hemi Challenger were among our victims that day. They all had V8s, but we had a V8 and two turbos. It was hardly fair. The RS6 ticked all the boxes for me–it was fast, it was rumbly, it had presence, and there were two rear seats for my sons, aged (in months) 22 and 4.

We wrapped up the track day and headed home. The Audi and I were both a bit hot and tired from track and sun. As we could both stand for a relaxing cruise, Anne took the wheel for the trip home, and I navigated from the passenger seat via cell phone.  The details of what happened shortly later are unimportant, but the last mental picture I have of my beautiful Mugello Blue Audi is of the entire passenger side caved in, fluid leaking onto the highway, the first-generation OnStar system loudly repeating the same phrase over and over through the speakers, something about a collision having been detected.

I was going to need a new ride.

Despite my love for the Audi, I hardly even considered finding another one.  It felt like I’d already had that experience, and I had little interest in starting over again.  It had taken two years to bring that Audi to that dialed-in day–two years of Dynamic Ride Control system debates and recalls, two years of mid-teens gas mileage, two years of trips from northwest Las Vegas all the way to Henderson for never-inexpensive service.  The RS6 had been glorious, but I was ready for something different.

The Porsche bug had been in my ear since 1999, when my high school girlfriend bought me a copy of “Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed” for Christmas. To this day, a copy resides in my glovebox. Porsche, take note: videogames sell cars.

By early December I had tracked down exactly what I had for so long desired: a 2003 996 Carrera 4S.  It was offered by a private seller in Van Nuys, California. I visited in person, went for a test drive, and we agreed on price. I journeyed back home, nailed down the financing and insurance, and set a date to close with the seller. Now there was only the matter of getting to Van Nuys again without asking someone to waste a whole day schlepping me there and then driving themselves back to Vegas.

Fortunately I had a coworker friend with alternate means of transportation: a small, tandem two-seat single-engine piston airplane called an RV8. I said, “Hey Malibu, you wanna fly me to that swanky airport in Van Nuys?” He said, “What for?” I replied, “I bought a Porsche there and I need to go pick it up.” He lit up. “That’s the best reason I’ve ever heard!” We wound up not quite making it to Van Nuys due to some weather, but diverted into a small airport called General William J. Fox, out near Palmdale.  General aviation, much like racetrack driving, is always an adventure.

I welcomed the C4S by driving it daily, 80 minutes of commute each workday.  It didn’t pull in a straight line like the Audi, but was in a different league in agility and immediacy.  I was also delighted to get back to having three pedals in my performance car.

The next big adventure in the Porsche was our epic family journey from Las Vegas through Yosemite National Park to Monterey, CA for Rennsport Reunion IV.  I’ve already catalogued the events of that trip, but it still stands out as a high point in my motoring history.  I had never been to a national-level Porsche event before, and wow, did I pick the right one to start with.

New Mexico became our next home.  At first, we didn’t think much of it, but in retrospect, the Land of Enchantment is an especially great state for cars.  Lots of high-speed desert highways, twisty mountain roads, little rain, and lots of sun.  There, our adventures included the Very Large Array and Taos and Santa Fe and White Sands.  We also made it to Austin for Formula 1’s return to the United States.

Then we went cross-country to Ohio for a transitional period.  The 996 got a new clutch, but other than that pressed on with minimal maintenance like the rest of the family.  We fought through the rain one day to make it down to Rallye Porsche Mariemont 2013, but the best part about Ohio was getting the opportunity to settle permanently in Iowa.


And now here we are.  We’ve all changed a bit—I’ve got less hair, the boys are getting taller, the C4S has WeatherTech floor mats and a Rennline dead pedal and the LN Engineering IMS Solution.  The ownership experience, though, remains just the same.  Even as recently as last night, when after a whirlwind and exhausting two-day work trip, I settled back into the 996.  I drove out of the airport parking garage, dropped the windows, and blasted up an on-ramp, nailing a redline gear-change.  Involuntarily, I gasped, “God, I love this car.”

Yeah.  The experience has definitely not changed.  Always an adventure.



I Deal in Lead, Friend


Thanks to the internet and our Google overlords, there exists now the ability to instantly map a drivable route from hither to yon, anywhere in the world.  That is a tantalizing enough time-waster.  What weaponizes this capability, though, is that after the route is drawn, with a mere flick of a wrist and the click of a left index finger, one can adjust that route and make it far more personal and compelling than the usual freeway haul.  I succumbed to my weakness for this particular electronic brand of hooch again today.

As a result, I’m suddenly rereading an old novel that I’ve long adored, and planning a trek through the region where the story took place.  But here’s the best part—I’ll be making the journey in the newest addition to my car family, a 1992 Porsche 968 coupe.

I found the car with the help of a little over a month ago.  It was residing at a small, performance-oriented, premium-makes dealership in Wylie, TX, a Dallas suburb.  Its proprietors call it simply “Dallas Motorsports.”  I called, asked a few questions, got a few answers, and shortly thereafter emailed with an offer.  There didn’t seem to be much interest.  I was disappointed, but moved on.  I’d been eyeballing 968s for a long time, always having loved how rare they were, how contemporary they look even now, and how from the front, they whiff faintly of 959.  But I wasn’t going to overpay on a near-quarter-century-old four-cylinder coupe that most folks don’t even recognize.


Two weeks later or so, I glanced back at the dealer’s website, just on a lark.  Wouldn’t you know it, the car was still there—but the sale price had changed to exactly what I’d offered.  I called back and closed on the car.  All that remained was the matter of picking it up and getting it home.

For nearly the last two years, I’ve had to travel about a week per month for work.  One of the several places I’ve been going is Fort Walton Beach, Florida.  Nice, right?  Even nicer, getting there from Des Moines via airplane involves connecting in one of two places: Charlotte, or…Dallas.  Can you say “pick up your Porsche on the company dime?”  Yes, please.

Planning time.  Sitting in front of Google Maps, I plug in the dealer address and my home address.  A long drive home, certainly, but nothing I haven’t done before.  Nothing really appealing on the route, though: Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, home.  I personally prefer to avoid Oklahoma—the entire state always looks like it got wiped out by a green-sky thunder-nado yesterday, and no one is bothering to rebuild because they’re expecting another one tomorrow.  No thanks.  Click, flick, drag.

Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Now that’s a decent spot.  I remember flying into the regional airport there back in pilot training.  Real nice FBO–great lobby and delicious pulled pork sandwiches, along with really smooth, clean tarmac.  Always liked that place.  There’s a Holiday Inn Express in town – book it.  I’ve been working nights, so my body clock will be mixed up, and I can’t plan on driving too far on day one.

Look at these roads in northwest Arkansas, though.  Lots of wiggle to them.  There must be mountains.  Mountains, you say?  In Arkansas?  And suddenly my inner monologue rolls into a measured, steely drawl.  It says, “I don’t like you, Payne.  I don’t like a man who carries a sawed-off semi-auto 12-gauge full of double-ought because he doesn’t want to miss.”

My brain is echoing the voice of Bob Lee Swagger, a brilliantly-named character from the mind of author Stephen Hunter, introduced in the novel Point of Impact and contemporized in the based-on-the-book film Shooter.  While Mark Wahlberg did a nice job in the lead role and the movie was certainly entertaining, the Swagger of the novel was as deep, powerful, and haunted as Bruce Wayne, except with a Remington Model 700 and a southern drawl instead of a black suit and cape.  Whereas the climax of the film centers around an anonymous mountain range, the climactic action in the novel takes place in the Ouachita Mountains of central-western Arkansas.

Now looms a chance to see (and carve) those mountains, and I won’t be passing it up.  This feels like some real car-writer stuff—flying off somewhere far from home to pick up a rare, ancient automobile that no one cares about but me.  Planning to drive said automobile hundreds of miles home through the hometown of a favorite fictional character.  I’m channeling Peter Egan and Jamie Kitman this month, but Stephen Hunter is riding shotgun.

And to think, this adventure all sprang to life from some squiggly lines on an internet map.  What a glorious time to be alive.