Furious Seven

PW2

I’ve been a fan of the Fast & Furious movie franchise since day one.  I imagine that it’s easy to deride these films if you, uh, hate fun.  Or if you’ve never watched them because you consider yourself above such base entertainment.  Or whatever your problem might be.  But for those of us that love them (and judging by the worldwide gross for the franchise to date—$3.2B—there are a lot of us), we have our reasons.  Perhaps the most commonly stated is that we can identify on a personal level with one of the characters, and in these films, the characters matter.  Yes, there are a lot of action sequences, but in the end it’s the characters’ experiences and relationships that make you care about the films—not the size and number of explosions.

My guy is—well, was—Paul Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner.  Brian was, of course, central to the franchise, and now that he’s gone, I’m not sure how the movies will work, or honestly if they will merit my movie-going dollars anymore.  My association with Brian certainly isn’t physical—I don’t pretend I’ve got Paul’s looks—but I feel like my professional career has ebbed and flowed in metaphorical harmony with his.

Brian and I got our starts at right around the same time—he was a brash, young undercover LAPD cop, and I was a brash, young lieutenant in pilot training.  When he had to choose between his job and his personal loyalties, he chose his personal loyalties (to Dom and Mia).  I did too, choosing family over work when presented with similar divergent roads in the wood.

As a result of that decision, both Brian and I had to move around a bit, take some risks, and scrape for a living here and there.  And while we didn’t often doubt ourselves, it only slowly became clear as time went on that we had made the right call.  After a while, it dawned on Brian that he was the good guy he’d set out to be, even if he’d had to make some hard choices.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have been personally and professionally vindicated with regard to my tough calls as well.

By Fast Five, Brian’s no longer the kid shaking with adrenaline after a single straight-line drag race—he’s the stone-cold pro who can handle any action sequence with veteran aplomb.  He’s also grown personally.  He’s in a serious, committed relationship with Mia.  He’s got people (Dom, Roman, Tej, and the rest of the crew) who depend on him and have expectations of him.  Through movies Six and Seven, the demands on Brian continue to increase, but he just keeps on delivering. He’s in the groove.  I’m happy to be able to say that I am too.

Because of these parallel arcs, it somehow hurt in a very personal way when Paul died.  And that obviously was true for far more people than just me.  We would no longer be able to go to the theater and check in on our buddy Brian—to see how he was handling the transition we were all sharing, from young, risk-taking adrenaline junkie to mature, dependable family man.  So sure, we would miss him.

What really drove home the sense of loss, though, was that everything we liked about mythical Brian seemed to be magnified in all the stories that emerged about real-world Paul after his death.  So often, it’s ‘don’t meet your heroes,’ but both Brian AND Paul were cool, good-looking guys that liked cars and did nice things for people.  And if they were like that, and we were like them, then, hey, we must be alright too.  Without them around, we lose that reassurance.  And no matter how far-fetched or small a reassurance it is, it’s gone now, and there’s a void where it used to be.

As silly as Furious Seven can get (and it gets pretty silly at some points), there’s a part at the end when the silliness goes away, and things get very real.  It’s when the cast gives Brian/Paul a sendoff.  It’s set to a beautiful song, with beautiful scenery, and if you don’t tear up a bit watching it, you probably need to get your soul checked.  It ends with two simple words: “For Paul.”

It reminded me of something that happened to me not too long ago, but well before the Furious Seven release.  I was on the way to a Porsche Club meeting in my 996.  The sun was setting, the sky was tinged with gold, and the traffic was light.  As I rolled up to a red light, alone in my lane, I observed in the also otherwise-empty lane to my left a red, late 90’s (2G) Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T coupe.  Except for color, it was the same as the first car Walker’s character piloted in the first movie—in fact, we all first met Brian O’Conner as he was attempting to ascertain his bright green 2G’s top speed in an empty stadium parking lot.

But back here in reality, the license plate of the red Eclipse read “RIP PAUL.”

There were two younger fellows in the car, t-shirts on, windows down.  I commented on the brilliance of their license plate, we exchanged some car-related compliments, and we lamented the loss of our friend.  The light changed, and we went our separate ways, both happier for our chance encounter.

A movie franchise that can give you something like that…well, it deserves your time.

PW4

The Definitive Top Ten Jeremy Clarkson Utterances

In order, starting with #10 and counting down to #1.

“This is just an ax murderer with headlights.  And I absolutely adore it.” [regarding the Mercedes C63 AMG]

“Unfortunately, on my way over here, I caught a cold.  And when I say cold, I actually mean gangrene.  Of my lungs.” [just before doing a ‘sensible’ review of the Renault Twingo]

“I’VE MENDED SOMETHING!” [upon fixing the light bulb in the rear taillight of a Porsche 944]

“I went on the internet and I found THIS…” [recurring theme during “The News”]

“Sorry, that happens sometimes when I say ‘silicon carbide.’” [His ‘crisis’ moment regarding the brakes and clutch on the Porsche Carrera GT]

“This is a hard job, and I’m not just saying this to win favor with lorry drivers, it’s a hard job.   Change gear, change gear, change gear, check your mirrors, murder a prostitute, change gear, change gear, murder, check your mirr—that’s a lot of effort in a day.” [regarding driving big rigs]

“Asking the front wheels of a car to do their normal job of steering while handling more than 170hp is like asking a man to wire a plug while juggling.  Penguins.  While making love.  To a beautiful woman while on fire, on stage…in front of the Queen.  It’s all going to go wrong.” [regarding the Ford Focus RS and front-wheel drive]

“Racing cars which have been converted for road use never really work. It’s like making a hardcore adult film, and then editing it so that it can be shown in British hotels. You just end up with a sort of half hour close up of some bloke’s sweaty face.” (makes said face) [regarding the Maserati MC12]

“The sort of person who would go away for a weekend, with his wife, to a hotel, some romantic place, and then spend the entire night flirting outrageously with the waitress.  And it’s okay because he’s got a Jaaaaaaaag.” [regarding Jaguar owners]

“You see, back in 1994, I was living in London. I got a call one evening from my mum to say that my dad was desperately ill in a hospital in Sheffield and I needed to get there as quickly as possible. I had just taken a chicken out of the oven and I thought, “Well, I’ll take that for my mum because she won’t have eaten,” ran outside, and I had a 928 on test that week. And when I arrived in Sheffield, the chicken was still warm. And my dad was still alive. In fact, he died half an hour later. And the truth is, if I hadn’t been driving a car which could zip quite happily at 170 miles per hour, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to say goodbye to my dad. So, as far as I’m concerned, the 928 is alright.” [during the Patagonia Special, regarding the Porsche 928]

And on that bombshell, it’s time to end.  Thank you very much for [reading] — good night.

clarkson

If You Just Wanna Get There

It’s always fun when a stranger strikes up a car-related conversation with you.  Of course, in the Porsche, this happens fairly frequently.  But recently, while traveling for work, my rental car was a 2015 Kia Soul.  One might think, as an enthusiast, that such a car isn’t worth or wouldn’t bring rise to conversation.  The Soul interests the everyday car-buying population, however, as indicated by the young fellow who, passing by as I climbed out, mentioned to me that he was considering buying one.

I didn’t discourage him.  The fact is, if you don’t care in the least about the driving experience, the new Soul is a pretty great car, especially for the price.

The Kia Soul is in its second generation as of 2014.  The newer Soul incorporates a number of improvements over its predecessor, but the two generations are not obviously discernable from the exterior, unless one knows what to look for.  The Soul has never been, nor is it now, notable for its performance – the base engine in the new model is a 1.6L gasoline direct-inject four-cylinder making 130hp, 118lb-ft, and noise at full throttle that won’t inspire anyone to love automobiles.  In a mostly-freeway 292 miles, I observed 28.1 mpg.

The Soul tugs at the road with its front wheels, tiny 205-60/16 Kumhos scrabbling for grip.  The tires are so narrow that the traction control leaps to the driver’s defense frequently, fending off terminal understeer in the event of a mid-corner bump, stone, or patch of dirt.

The doors feel like the front cover of a three-ring binder.  They’re so thin and light that I took extra care with them in the South Dakota wind.  And the rear cargo area is laughably small, especially with the cargo cover installed (who demands those things anyway?).

I’ve stated all the negatives.  Here’s the thing: the Soul delivers the goods in every other category.

We’ll start with the sheetmetal.  The exterior design is striking—you certainly wouldn’t mistake a Soul for anything else, and Kia offers it in colors and exterior packages that take advantage of its angular, yet un-presumptuous boldness.

All of the seats sit at the perfect height off the ground to make for easy entry and exit for the average consumer.  The seat cloth in my rental-spec Soul was black, and the seats’ shape wasn’t anything special, but they were reasonably comfortable and supportive.  Importantly, the seams were stitched together with contrasting yellow thread—a small, inexpensive, but thoughtful touch that makes a shopper or owner smile.

The top of the dash is rendered in the usual black pebbled plastic, but it is not unpleasantly rigid to the touch, and it is formed around the speakers, HVAC, and gauges with enough curves and creases such that it remains inoffensive.  The two dash-top speakers are actually raised vertically above the dash surface, and are presented in a contrasting brushed-aluminum color, another smile-inducing gesture on Kia’s part.

The infotainment system is the star of the Soul’s interior.  Instead of being overly flashy or screen-intensive, it makes brilliant use of a small monochrome (red text, black background) center screen and a simple, intuitive button layout.  There are a few menus accessible via the “Tune” knob, but an owner wouldn’t make frequent use of them (the only reason I did was to reset the clock for the recent switch to daylight savings time).  The Soul also features easily accessible USB and AUX ports, satellite radio, and Bluetooth.  All of these were, again, simple and intuitive to operate, and the whole center stack is eye-pleasing with a premium feel.  The speakers weren’t praiseworthy, but Kia offers a fix for that with an optional Infinity Audio system.

The steering wheel includes tuning and cruise control functions, governed by glossy buttons that give a feeling of solidity and positive feedback.  The wheel itself looks solid and upscale.  The steering itself is light, only mildly vague, and appropriate for a vehicle of this class.

Astoundingly, despite the three-ring-binder-style doors mentioned earlier, the Soul was incredibly quiet inside as long as I wasn’t caning the engine, demanding more power.  Kia is keen to point out their improvements to the interior noise level over the first-gen Soul, and I’m certain they are not exaggerating.  The solace of the cabin was no-kidding impressive; even more so if one considers the low price.

The reason the cargo area is so small is that there’s a comfortable amount of space in the second row.  Looking back from the driver’s seat, I was surprised how far away the rear seats seemed.  I didn’t think to try putting them down, but Kia’s website shows that they split-fold 60/40 to an almost-flat position.  The Soul’s boxy shape, combined with a flat floor, promises quite a bit of interior cargo capacity (61.3 cubic feet, to be exact).

So, Kia has a winner with the Soul.  It’s racked up a fair number of awards and comparison-test wins, as well as sold very respectably.  After driving one for a week, I can understand its appeal.  If I were the editor, next to “cheap and cheerful” in the car dictionary, there would be a picture of the Kia Soul.

Additionally, the Soul was among the first of the mini-crossover vehicles to reach the consumer, granting Kia a head start in the hottest segment in the market right now.  While other manufacturers are rushing to get their mini-utes to dealerships (Fiat 500X, Jeep Renegade, Audi Q3, BMW X1, Honda HR-V, myriad others), Kia is a generation ahead with a refined product that’s hard to beat.  If you’re buying this type of vehicle, you’re not interested in driving dynamics, so why bother?  The Soul bulls-eyes everything this category needs, and happily ignores everything it doesn’t.

I’ve a coworker who used to drive a 996 cabriolet.  He needed something a little cheaper to run, and traded the Porsche in on a Kia Soul.  And now, I kinda understand why.

KIA_soul_1-1c--kia-1920x-jpg
Is it green? … Yes. Very.

The One(s) That Got Away

Get a bunch of car folks together, and they can swap these stories all day—stories about the cars they’ve wanted that they couldn’t quite obtain, for any of a thousand reasons. I’ve seen this phenomenon, witnessed it, taken part in it myself on previous occasions. My story for today isn’t any more special than anyone else’s. But it’s still my story, and the other day it gained considerable, measureable economic poignancy, so I’ll share it here.

I was clicking about the /DRIVE channel on YouTube, and stumbled upon a video where Mike Spinelli filmed himself sitting in his swanky Manhattan Car Club, as he is wont to do. Joining him were a leader of said club as well as a VP of Hagerty Specialty Insurance. The fellas were discussing/forecasting what cars are ready to leap up in value and become collector’s items.

Nothing they said is much of a surprise for anyone who’s been following the market. 356 prices are absurd, air-cooled 911s are absurd, and Toyota FJ40s are truly, madly, deeply absurd. The near-mythical cars from the Japanese “Golden Age” of the early- to mid-90’s are, the fellas agreed, probably about to spike: the NSX, the 3000GT VR4, the 300ZX Twin Turbo, the Supra.

When I saw the Hagerty VP though, I thought to myself, hey, I’ve not been to the Hagerty webpage. Let’s check that out. And while perusing their listings, I stumbled across their year-by-year valuation of the 1993 Porsche 911 Carrera RS America.

That took me back to late 2010, when I was still mourning the loss of my 2003 Audi RS6. I was feeling the pangs of not owning a performance car, and searching high and low online for a suitable replacement. Suddenly, there it was: a not-unusually-worn RS America, on eBay Motors, for some unfathomably affordable price–I don’t recall exactly, but it was very, very attainable. Low-$30k range, maybe $31,500 or so, my memory insists. I was instantly out of my chair, knocking things over, searching desperately for a phone.

A voice on the other end answers the distant ringing! “I’m calling about a 964 RS America on eBay?” I say, trying not to sound too desperate or hopeful, and failing.

“It’s been sold,” says the voice, not without some anguish of its own. And, to make those dreadful words sting significantly more, he added, “but I kind of wish I’d asked for more money–I keep getting calls about it.”

Well of course he kept getting calls about it! An air-cooled, lightweight, special-edition 911? I’m not a smart man, as the guy says in the movie, but I know what a 911 that will appreciate in value is.

I was right, as the Hagerty chart proves. It’s essentially impossible to get an “RSA” now for less than seventy grand, and the super-clean ones are up in the ionosphere at nearly $170,000. So yeah, I’d say that one got away. Real, real far away.

I bet the remorse is significantly greater for the guy on the other end of the phone, though.

porsche_rs_america_94_03

2012 Chevrolet Volt – Two-Year Review

Twenty-seven months, forty-one thousand miles, two moves, three states.  Our Volt is a veteran of the roads now, battle-hardened with dog hair, discarded Fruit Snacks, and its second set of tires.  It’s been plugged into public charging stations in Santa Fe, Benton Harbor, Des Moines, Denver, and probably a few places I’m forgetting.  It represents our first foray into EV/Hybrid ownership, and it wasn’t by any means an inexpensive one.  It is high time to take stock of the Volt’s performance and evaluate its place in the landscape of cars for sale here in the twenty-teens.

Chargers aren't exactly common, but it's a blessing when one can find them away from home.
Chargers aren’t exactly common, so finding one while away from home is like Christmas.

First, a few assumptions and rules.  All energy cost data comes from EIA.gov.  Electricity is measured in cents per kWh, averaged monthly over the ownership period.  Gas prices are US monthly average per gallon for premium unleaded.  All data on the Volt’s performance comes from OnStar, collected from the monthly “Vehicle Diagnostic Reports” automatically sent to my inbox.  When figuring miles per gallon on dino-juice alone, the EPA combined figure of 37mpg is used.

Our Volt has traveled 20,300 EV (electric) miles and 20,372 gas-powered miles.  The average cost of a kWh of electricity during that time has been $0.1224.  The average cost of gas has been $3.73.  In EV mode, the Volt has averaged 36.55 kWh consumed per 100 miles, or $0.0447 per mile.  Under gas power, per-mile fuel cost has been $0.1008.  Overall economy is up for debate—the Volt says it has averaged 67mpg, but my calculations have resulted in 107.67mpg or 141.72mpg, depending on assumptions.

The Volt might be modestly doing its math based on the EPA estimate that 33.7 kWh is equivalent to 1 gallon of gas.  This helps the “Lifetime MPG” number avoid getting pulled into the stratosphere during EV operation.  That’s fair, but on the other side of the coin, during 24 of the 27 months of ownership I wasn’t paying for the electricity used to charge the car.  At first, we were living on a military base where we weren’t separately charged, and for some time now, we’ve been in an apartment where the garage is detached from the living space and not individually metered.  Lucky us.

Anyway, no matter how you slice it, the car is mind-bogglingly efficient.  Consider that the 2014 new-vehicle fleet in the USA averages 24.2mpg.  Even worst-case, our Volt has been nearly three times as fuel-miserly.  OnStar tells me I’ve saved 1,101 gallons of fuel…do the math with the average gas price and that’s $4,109.01 saved in just over two years.  Assuming that doesn’t improve, I’ll have saved twelve grand by the time the 72-month, zero-interest loan is up.  Also, because the gas engine has done only half the work so far, the car is only now coming due for its SECOND oil change.

The sound system is the upgraded Bose piece, which sounds excellent, especially when running silently in EV mode.  The suspension is remarkably capable, masking many of the car’s 3,781 pounds and combining with the instant-on torque of the electric motor to make the car “adequately brisk!” according to Chris Harris.  The hatchback configuration means there’s lots of cargo room, rear seats folded down or not.  And it’s good fun to play the regeneration game, trying to keep the car in EV mode for as long as possible by coasting down hills and into stops.

Hatchback practicality.
Hatchback practicality.

So what are the tradeoffs for all the efficiency?  There are a few.  The navigation system—ugh.  It’s not an eye-pleasing system; it’s not intuitive to read or understand; it’s slow to respond to inputs on the touch screen; and more than once it’s taken me the long way ‘round.  Use your phone as a backup with this thing; or use it alone at the peril of your time-and-distance expectations.  Here’s hoping the new-gen Volt doesn’t have these issues.

The car sits very low to the ground in the interest of aerodynamics, so more than a few inches of snow and there’s gonna be a problem.  The stock eco-tires are not grippy in wet conditions, and certainly not in cold and wet conditions.  You’ll want a set of winter tires—we got Goodyear Ultra Grips.

IMAG0101
You’ll want to keep it off the B-roads when it rains, as well. Thankfully after a wash she emerged good as new.

The Volt seats four (not five), and though the kids’ child seats fit and are naturally reclined by the rake of the backrest (encouraging sleep), their feet get the backs of the front seats all dirty.  I suspect this is a common parents’ lament, more the fault of the children than their chariot, but still.  The dog fits under the rear hatch, but has to duck her head to avoid getting whacked by the overhead glass when it closes.  On a sunny day, it can get warm back there under that glass—crank the A/C up to keep your four-legged friends cool.

Snug but smiling.
Snug but smiles all around.

The abrupt rear-end of this car means it sucks up a vortex of disturbed air while in motion.  Expect rain to get the entire rear fascia of the car horrifically dirty—don’t brush up against it while wearing nice clothes and trying to get something out of the rear cargo area.  This phenomenon also makes your rearview camera useless.  The sheer enormity of the rear hatch means the struts holding it up have a tough job, so watch your head on cold days.

Speaking of cold days, expect to lose approximately 33% of the maximum electric range when the weather gets consistently colder than 32 degrees.  Sure, most people’s daily commute is under 36-40 miles round trip, but under 24?  Not likely.  Expect overall economy to take a big hit if you live somewhere that has cold winters.  Even during EV operation, the car is less efficient, with seat heaters and defrosters and climate control consuming your battery instead of the electric drive.

kWh chart
Fairly obvious when winter takes place around here.

With all of that said, the car does exactly what we need about 90% of the time.  The difficulty comes when hauling all four of us, plus the dog, plus the luggage, to relatives’ for the holidays.  It gets pretty cramped in there when we try to do that.  As a result, and also as a result of my desire for some racecar-towing capacity, our Volt will someday be replaced by a Porsche Cayenne, either the base gas V6 or the Diesel.  Still, the thought of filling up the base model’s 22.4-gallon tank every 425 miles makes me wince.

Which is why the Chevrolet Bolt concept is such an intriguing bit of kit…

Bolt Concept

Audi, Atop the Ski Jump

I have some well-off relatives that live in Connecticut, and it was at one of their houses where I first remember seeing Audis.  I remember them looking sharp-edged and squared-off, but in the late 80’s there were lots of cars like that, and an offhand negative remark from another (probably jealous) family member mitigated any further interest I might have had at my young age.

I do remember the ski jump commercial, but again, I don’t recall it making much of an impression on me; I recall thinking that of course *all* cars could do that, but it was interesting that they’d gone to the trouble of putting the car up on the ski jump.

So it wasn’t until a spoiled rich kid that I knew tossed me, a rear-seat passenger in his late-90’s A4 1.8T, some lateral G’s in the high school parking lot that Audis really interested me.  All I knew at the time was that the 1.8T in that thing really PULLED right from a stop—probably the first time my young Corolla-calibrated brain noticed and catalogued torque.  The A4, of course, turned out to be the magic memory elixir that made America forget the “unintended acceleration” scandal of the Audi 5000 (which, as per usual in such cases, was more operator error than design flaw), and suddenly Audis became fairly common on the streets of the USA again.

Still, the horizon of my Audi knowledge wasn’t far from the tip of my nose.  And then, a few things happened, closely enough in time and space that my interest increased exponentially.

First, I finished college and started drawing a regular paycheck.  Around that same time, the May 2003 issue of Car & Driver hit the shelves.  I didn’t have a subscription while in school, but I grabbed a C&D from the bookstore on occasion, so I was familiar enough with the publication.  By “familiar enough,” I mean I knew that BMWs won every C&D comparison into which they entered, all the time, no exceptions.  Right?  Everyone who reads C&D knows this.

So when in the May 2003 issue, Audi trumped BMW in not one but TWO comparison tests (“Compact Adrenaline-Delivery Systems” and “Deep-Pocket Rockets”), I remember raising an eyebrow.  Audi, the brand that ten years previously one couldn’t even find on the average US street, was suddenly better than demigod BMW?

Two short years later, the very first iteration of Forza Motorsport arrived for Xbox.  While playing it one day, I suddenly stopped short.  Wait.  In 2003, Audi made a 450 hp, twin-turbo V8 four-door sedan?  A family car with a strong enough power-to-weight ratio to run with sports cars?  And then I made the connection—wasn’t this the Audi that bested the M5 in the May 2003 C&D?  I became an unabashed Audi fan.  It looked as though the cars from Ingolstadt were on the upswing.

My opportunity for ownership showed itself a few years later when I sold my first house at sizeable profit after making significant improvements.  I had also recently been promoted at work, and felt like it was time to replace my first post-college car with a more impressive ride (a mistake in hindsight—I miss that Acura RSX).  I found a private seller in the Chicago suburbs wishing to part with my dream example—an RS6 in Mugello Blue, with Ivory leather and carbon fiber trim.

DSC02942-1

I discovered that the car had deserved to win that comparo with the M5.  It was astoundingly fast, and felt utterly competent and composed no matter what was asked of it.  It made an incredible noise of V8 burble-thunder, intermixed with spooling turbos.  It sat four comfortably with plenty of trunk space.  With fresh tires, high-temp brake fluid for its eight-piston calipers, and new, stiffer sway bars, it embarrassed a C6 Corvette and an S5 coupe on the track at Buttonwillow Raceway in Bakersfield, CA.  I can say from personal experience, then, that Audi can make (and has made) some spectacular cars.

After bringing the RS6 to US shores in 2003, Audi doubled down, giving the US the RS4 in 2006 and the stunning R8 in 2008.  The R8 dovetailed nicely with the release of “Truth in 24,” the riveting, NFL-Films-produced, Jason-Statham-narrated, free-on-iTunes documentary about the 2008 Audi Sport Team Joest’s year-long effort and eventual victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

While the R8 and RS4 were aspirational cars, the A4 got a comprehensive redesign for the 2008 model year as well, making the brand’s hot cachet readily accessible to the upper middle class.  The economic downturn slowed sales growth, but once the Great Recession passed, Audi started hitting consecutive best-ever-US-sales years, and the brand became more common than at any previous point in my lifetime.

2012 saw the arrival of the gorgeous A7 and its mechanical equivalent, the handsome-but-more-conventional A6.  Both packed the now-ubiquitous “3.0T” supercharged V6, a stunning MultiMedia Interface (MMI) display, and a sumptuous cockpit.  Both cars were well-received by the automotive press, with the A7 netting Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile of the Year.”

And since then…almost nothing.

There have been projects and show cars and R8 special editions.  There have been more Le Mans wins.  There’s been the R8 V12 TDI concept in Detroit, circa 2008.  There’s been the e-tron concept in Frankfurt, circa 2009.  There’s been the R20 rumor.  There’s been the breathtaking Quattro Concept in Paris, circa 2010.  There was the TDI-availability explosion for model year 2014.  But lately, it’s hard to say that Audi continues to truly embrace the “Vorsprung durch Technik” motto that it has always been synonymous with.

Why?  Because in its quest to become the world’s top-selling automaker, the VW Group has the Audi brand reaching downmarket.  Instead of creating the next great thing as with the A7 or R8, Audi’s resources have lately been pouring into the A3 and Q3, targeting a magic dollar amount ($30,000 on the A3) instead of targeting a luxury “feel” with less demanding price controls.  This is necessary, the Group believes, to achieve the 1-million-US-units-sold goal across Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, and the other US brands under its umbrella.  I have to feel this pressure for volume superseding the desire for quality luxury may have had something to do with the sudden departure of Audi USA President Johan de Nysschen (hired to lead Cadillac this past summer) in May 2012.

With this downmarket reach, instead of leading the way with new and inspiring designs and technologies, Audi has been only managing to keep up with other manufacturers on the tech front, and skating by with aging higher-end models on the design front, all while finding it more and more difficult to justify its demanded price premium, in part because the Four Rings badge can be had for less money.  Examples: Audi was the first to offer Wi-Fi in their cars, and for 2015 moved to 4G-powered Wi-Fi – the same as, for example, Chevrolet.  Speaking of which, Audi will bring in a low-priced A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid in early 2015, which sounds like it performs essentially the same as the Volt, which Chevrolet introduced back in 2011 (expect the new Volt, scheduled for unveiling in January 2015 at the NAIAS in Detroit, to smoke the A3 e-tron in every meaningful way).  Audi highlighted its TDI models in late 2013 for the 2014 push, but many Americans who can afford the models on offer still shy away from diesel (most of these buyers remember 70’s-vintage diesels, do so rather unfavorably, and don’t know what the 24 Hours of Le Mans is), so the TDI explosion pretty much fizzled in terms of driving increased sales volume…and by 2014, other manufacturers had begun to offer diesels, too, for the discerning customer.  Audi made use of Google Maps to power its first MMI system, and future Audis will be equipped with Android Auto…again, just like many other manufacturers.

So, has Audi somewhat “lost” itself in the VW Group quest for ever-higher sales figures?  In my enthusiast opinion, all Audis should have full-time mechanical all-wheel-drives with actual mechanical differentials.  There should be at least one five-cylinder model available, tying the brand to its history.  There should be no difference in the “scale” of luxury from Audi to Audi—they should all be impeccably fit and finished, brilliantly painted, and richly appointed.  If the VW Group wants volume, they should turn to the VW brand, instead of cannibalizing VW sales by cheapening Audi.

Still, perhaps the Four Rings are only taking a breath after all, and there’s yet a chance for Audi to turn it around.  Recent news brings us some tantalizing prospects.  The 2016 S6 looks brilliant, essentially doing a contemporary 2003 RS6 impression sans only the “R.”  The RS7 seems pretty much unbeatable as a money-no-object fast four-seat GT car.  The 2016 Q7 looks like a great update as well.  And here’s hoping the 2016 TT can make that particular nameplate resonate again—my wife and I were just remarking on how there used to be TTs seemingly everywhere, and we hardly see them anymore.  The driver-focused cockpit is very nice, and the gauge cluster going full-digital is more like it—more like the “Vorsprung durch Technik” I want from the Four Rings.

So it seems like Audi is hovering at a precipice atop the ski jump.  Do they plunge down into the ghastly storm below, seeking volume over competence?  Or do they do the harder, better thing and add on to the ski jump, stretching it to reach a higher altitude?  It seems 2015 and 2016 will bring us a little of both—here’s hoping the highs for Audi outweigh the lows.  Unless one of the lows is losing to Porsche at Le Mans, of course.

2014 LE Mans Winning R18 e-tron quattro no2

Schonesland Dragoon Trail Drive 2014

The weather could not have been better for Schonesland’s Dragoon Trail drive this past Saturday.  The sky gleamed blue with the occasional bit of glittering cirrus frosting as a procession of Porsches nearly two dozen strong filed out of the Machine Shed in Urbandale, bound for parts north.  Convertible tops went down as temperatures cleared the mid-sixties and climbed into the seventies.  From my point of view, last in line with my wife Anne and my two boys in my 996 C4S, trailing just behind Sue’s gleaming black-on-tan 987 Cayman S, things had started off pretty perfectly.

Shortly before we crossed onto the the IA-210 bridge over the Des Moines River, running parallel to the famed High Trestle rail bridge, I noticed that I wasn’t last in line anymore.  Somehow a lovely silver 993 had taken the tail-end-Charlie position from me, and I was having trouble keeping my eyes off the lovely front end of it as it winked in my rearview mirror.  This was not a standard 993 Carrera, I noted by the low-slung artistry of the front bumper.

The convoy ducked into the Casey’s on Mamie Eisenhower Avenue in Boone, IA for a quick stretch.  The marching order got a bit scrambled as we all scanned for parking spots, and the 993 passed in front of me.  And I’d been right!  Not just any Carrera, but a 993 Carrera 4S.  Oh, how I’d wanted one of those when my search for a 911 began.  In my eyes, they had just the perfect look for a 911—the right hips, the right ride height, the right wheels, the right lights.  The perfect mix of subtlety, menace, and style.  Sadly the 993s hovered just out of my price-reach, and I “settled” for my car.  (And you’ll pry it from my cold, dead hands, you air-cooled purists!)

We turned keys to press on after our break and relished the chorus of the boxers.  These were accompanied by at least two 944 inline fours, plus a lone BMW V8—bless Skip for nearly having reached 100,000 miles on that stunning Z8 of his.  We passed the Scenic Valley Rail Station—stop by there during this coming holiday season for a ride, I highly recommend it—and proceeded north out of Boone.

Positions had again switched; Sue’s Cayman was now behind, and the 993 C4S was in front of me.  This was delightful, for as lovely as the front of a 993 C4S is, the back is perhaps even more perfectly formed.  I could now hear the rasp of the flat six and watch the rise and fall of the rear wing as the group negotiated intersections and stop signs.  I noted that said rear wing on the 993 didn’t seem to abide by the same numbers as my rear wing; mine rises at 75mph and remains up until the speedo falls back below 37mph.  The 993’s numbers seemed to both be a bit lower.

And then, as we pulled up to a stop sign just outside Stratford, IA, the 993’s wing didn’t retract at all.  Anne and I both said something to the effect that that was odd.  And then I heard the 993’s starter clicking away, and the driver waved me past.  Right, as if I was going to leave the automotive equivalent of Christie Brinkley stranded on a random road an hour from home.

I hopped out, introduced myself, and met Karen, the driver.  First order of business was to get the 993 off the road, so Karen put it in neutral and Sue (who’d also stopped, bless her) and I pushed the car into a nearby driveway.  I had some jumper cables, and when I brought this up, my boys, ages 4 and 5, got very excited—they thought the cars would physically leap off the ground when the cables were put to use.  They seemed sort of surprised that this was the first they had heard of jumper cables, and if they’d put a bit more thought into it, might have asked why we don’t just use the “jumper” cables all of the time and avoid traffic.

Anyway, over the course of the next hour or so, I learned where a 993’s battery is (different spot, further forward and lower down than in my 996), as well as that it doesn’t much matter how many times you jump-start a 993 if the accessory drive belt is broken.  Note: it’ll run for as long as the cables are hooked up, but not long after that.  Karen spoke with her insurance company, but before they could respond, a helpful local from a nearby shop had gotten word, arrived, and fairly quickly diagnosed the root cause of the problem.  Karen begged us off to lunch, and I thought we’d best go, as our boys had been well-behaved thus far but would soon get tired and antsy.

Sue’s 987 led the way as we two Porsches shot across the farmland from Stratford toward 209Main, the massive restaurant at the same address in Paton, IA, where we rejoined the group, actually arriving only minutes after they did due to our direct, non-scenic route.  Sue went the extra mile by recruiting Gary and going back with him to Stratford to retrieve Karen and her daughter, bringing them both to the restaurant once the 993 was safely in a shop with a replacement belt ordered and on the way.

So we all successfully made it to lunch and enjoyed some views of harvest-time Iowa.  And while this article (and its’ author) may not have followed the route that the reader may have expected, it really does serve to highlight PCA’s “cars…people” tagline, does it not?  One might join the club to see some beautiful cars, and see beautiful cars one certainly would.  But what keeps the community alive and well are the people that go out of their way to make it so outstanding, no matter what happens.  I’ll be in PCA for a long time, I think.

993 C4S

 

F1 2014 – Four Races Remain

Before anything else can be said about the 2014 Formula 1 season, it is necessary at this point in time to preface with a sincere hope that Marussia driver Jules Bianchi of Nice, France experiences a full recovery from his severe injuries sustained in his crash at the Japan Grand Prix in Suzuka.  Motorsport is dangerous—Jules knew this far better than most of us can—and yet he regularly strapped himself into a Formula 1 machine that was never going to win a race, simply because (and I can find no other way to express this) motorsport is glorious, too.  Indeed, all of the very best to young Jules and his family.

The 2014 Formula 1 season raised the curtain on a new era.  F1 has forever been the most scientifically advanced racing series, and in 2014 it would raise the technological bar to never-before-seen heights.  Leaving the V8s of 2013 behind, the new “power units” (it would be a vast oversimplification to call them “engines”) output nearly the same energy as their forebears, but while using 35% less fuel.  They accomplish this by incorporating a turbocharged 1.6L V6 and two massively complex electric propulsion systems: one connected to the V6’s crankshaft, and one mounted to the turbocharger’s turbine shaft.  Both of these provide both energy capture and energy output.  For example, the turbine shaft system (MGU-H) generates electricity created by the spinning of the turbo (which is motivated by the engine exhaust gases) and can send that power to the other electric system (MGU-K), which can add up to 120kW to the driven wheels.  Alternatively, the MGU-H can expend collected energy by keeping the massive turbo spinning while exhaust gases are NOT flowing (i.e., the driver is off-throttle while slowing for a corner).  Thus when the driver reapplies power exiting the corner, there is no waiting for maximum power from the turbo since it never slowed its spin.

Of course this is all much more easily stated in words than physically made to happen.  The electronics assemblies in the cars must be meticulously programmed to make all of these parts do the right jobs at the right places and right times, optimally in a manner completely transparent to the driver, all while being thrashed around a track, wheel to wheel with other cars, at speeds up to two hundred miles per hour.

It sounds preposterous.  Nigh impossible.  And yet with each passing race, we see the F1 teams come out and put this technology to use.  And in the case of the Mercedes AMG Patronas team, we see it put to use in a manner which has proved better than all others.

In this age of such stunning technology, there was concern the machines would overshadow the men piloting them.  That has not been the case.  In fact, far from being the relative snooze-fest that was the 2013 season, 2014 has been utterly gripping.  Both Mercedes teammates, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, are at the top of their game, battling against each other lap by lap, race by race, for the driver’s championship.

Lewis last won the title in 2008 with McLaren, the team that brought him into the sport.  He surprised many by leaving McLaren at the end of the 2012 season for Mercedes, whose cars were hardly competitive in the era prior to 2014.  He’s proven that the move was a masterful one, both for him and the Silver Arrows.

Nico started in F1 with Williams and performed solidly enough to generate interest at Mercedes, who signed him for the 2010 season.  While often overshadowed as a result of being teamed with 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher, Rosberg frequently earned the better result of the two.  Now, he’s overshadowed again by being paired with Hamilton, who hails from the UK—the seat of power in F1.  It hasn’t dulled his ability to win.

At the 2014 season opener in Australia, Hamilton was forced to retire with engine trouble while Rosberg crushed the field, winning by 24 seconds.  Next up was Malaysia, where Hamilton took the top step of the podium, besting his teammate by 17 seconds.  This was the first of a string of four wins for Hamilton, the most thrilling of which took place in Bahrain, where he and Rosberg dueled wheel-to wheel so fanatically that during a period of yellow flag, Mercedes’ team technical director Paddy Lowe implored Hamilton to “make sure we bring both cars home.”

Rosberg dominated Memorial Day weekend at Monaco, taking the top step of the podium at F1’s most glamorous race for the second year in a row.  In Canada, the Mercedes cars encountered reliability problems.  Hamilton was unable to finish the race due to brake failure, while Rosberg nursed his car to the checkered flag with an MGU-K problem, managing second behind the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo.  Brake problems again plagued the Mercs in Austria, requiring constant attention from both Nico and Lewis, with Rosberg notching another victory over Hamilton, who finished second.

Heading to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, the storyline revolved around hometown crowd favorite Hamilton barely hanging onto his championship hopes.  Rosberg seemed to have weathered the previous races’ reliability storm a bit better, and had built a significant points lead in doing so—165 to 136.  With the Mercs’ nearest competition far behind and eleven races remaining in the season, it seemed that Hamilton could hardly depend upon recovering the lead conventionally, were he only able to claw back seven points at a time (first place pays 25 points; second pays 18), allowing for some inconsistency.

Hamilton seemed to seal his fate at Silverstone when during qualifying he set a great lap time, only to relax on his final lap before time expired in the belief he could not better his time.  Track conditions were improving, however, and Rosberg (as well as four other drivers) pounced, relegating Hamilton to sixth on the starting grid.  Lewis had no explanation for not playing to the proverbial whistle, looking visibly staggered in the post-qualifying presser and calling it “my mistake.”

Hamilton charged back through the field on race day and was pressuring Rosberg, but further drama was unnecessary; Nico’s gearbox failed.  Hamilton went on to win, narrowing the points gap from 29 to 4 in one fell swoop.  The UK crowd was delirious to see this play out before their eyes.

The competition remained tight through the German and Hungarian GPs, with Lewis dogging Nico’s every step.  In Germany, Hamilton suffered a wince-inducing crash in qualifying due to a brake malfunction, then battled up through the field on race day to achieve a third-place finish while Nico breezed to a win.  Hamilton battled yet more adversity at the Hungaroring when his car was consumed by fire in qualifying—he still managed to finish third, with Nico fourth.  Then, at Spa in Belgium, the drama intensified yet another notch: while battling for the lead, the two Mercedes cars touched, and Hamilton got the worst of it, coming away with his left rear tire cut and deflated.  Unable to finish the race, Hamilton watched as his teammate took the win, returning his points lead to 29.  After the race, Rosberg admitted culpability and was “disciplined” by the team.

At Monza in Italy, Hamilton’s car bogged down at the start.  Rosberg leapt into the lead, but twice during the race missed the chicane at the end of the start/finish straight (the second time while under intensifying pressure from Hamilton, and after saying to his engineer “do not tell me the gap [between Lewis and I]”).  Rosberg’s gaffe enabled Hamilton to regain first position and take the victory over his teammate by three seconds.

Two weeks later in Singapore, the two Mercs qualifying times were separated by a mere seven-thousandths of a second.  Rosberg suffered an electronics failure on the race starting grid, however, and ultimately retired after thirteen slow, frustrating laps.  Hamilton battled hard in the heat and humidity with the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, ultimately maximizing his tires over a long fast stint to build a lead large enough to survive a late-race pit stop for fresh rubber.  Vettel overtook Hamilton as Lewis exited the pits, but only just, and the Mercedes car spent only one lap behind the Red Bull and its spent tires before blasting past into turn seven.  Hamilton then pulled away and logged a victory by a margin of thirteen seconds, vaulting him back into the overall points lead for the first time since the Spanish GP more than four months earlier.

Race day on the stunning Suzuka Circuit in Japan brought significant rain from the fringes of Typhoon Phanfone.  Rosberg had qualified in the dry two-tenths faster than Hamilton, but complained of oversteer in the wet race conditions.  Hamilton proved faster, overtaking his teammate into turn one midway through the race, which saw two periods of red flag.  “Lewis was quicker today and deserved the win,” Nico said afterward.  It was Hamilton’s third first-place finish in a row.

All of which brings us to the present.  Four grands prix remain: Russia, USA, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi.  Somewhat ridiculously (2010-2013 world champion Vettel called it “absurd”), the winner at Abu Dhabi will score double points, that is, 50 instead of the usual 25.  So as if there was not enough drama in the season thusfar—after fires, malfunctions, collisions, drifts, pit lane starts, crashes, some epic saves, and some incredibly tight, flat-out wheel-to-wheel racing—it seems very likely that the championship will remain undecided until the final race.  After early-season concern that the new cars might not sound good enough, the on-track product his been so compelling that that discussion has fallen out of the collective consciousness entirely (well, almost entirely).

While some decry the hybrid era, this author welcomes it.  It’s pushed F1 back to the forefront of powerplant technology as well as brought on some spectacular competition.  Here’s to a great 2014 season, here’s to a great final sprint to the checkered flag, and here’s to the health of Jules Bianchi.

MercAMG W05

 

In Defense of the 996

996 C4S hero

At present, the Porsche 996 is besieged by haters everywhere.  Purists pooh-pooh the water cooling and the fried-egg headlights.  There’s the seemingly endless train of detractors ranting about the intermediate shaft bearing/rear main seal (IMS/RMS) problems.  There’s the poor 996 pumped full of hot lead after suffering such a failure.   /DRIVE’s Mike Spinelli, in a 35-minute video entitled “Here’s Why You Must Buy A Porsche 911 Today,” gave barely a mention of the 996 except to insinuate that no one should give it a moment’s consideration. The 996 gets little love, even (and sometimes especially) amongst some of the brand’s most loyal acolytes.

We shall leave out of this discussion the 996 Turbo, GT2, and GT3, as it is fairly commonly known that these variants house not the admittedly flawed M96 engine, but instead a variant of the Mezger air-cooled block from the Le Mans-winning GT1.  I do not believe anyone has disparaged, nor does anyone plan to disparage, these types.  I leap instead to the defense of the more ‘common’ 996s, especially the plainest-Jane of them, the humble Carrera.

I will not attempt to argue that the 996 Carrera is without flaw—and the flaws are not limited to the engine room.  The car’s ignition switch is prone to failure.  The unframed, cable-regulated windows can hardly be called reliable.  The interior, while passable in 1999, was badly behind the times in appearance and quality by 2005, when the 997 redesign came about.  Locating the battery underneath a locked metal lid that can only be opened via an electric switch is such a hilariously bad design decision that it can’t really be considered to have been “engineered” that way—I’m sure it’s actually some kind of German joke.  The audio control unit has shown a tendency to fail and is not inexpensive to repair or replace.  At one point my headlight switch stopped telling my xenon main headlights to turn on, and thus my car became day/VFR only.  And of course there is the dreaded M96 IMS/RMS failure, which is getting peak attention at present, as we have reached the point where the youngest 996 is now ten full years old.

Regarding the IMS/RMS: yes, it’s a flaw.  Yes, it will cost you lots of money if you choose to ignore it. You know what other Porsche had a similarly catastrophic flaw?  EVERY SINGLE 911 FROM 1969-1983.  Chain tensioners—Google it.  Of course, by now, most of the affected cars have been made right by an aftermarket fix, so we look at said cars and wax poetic about how perfect they are.  We ignore the fact that they didn’t always seem so brilliant, and we forget how long it took and how much it cost to rectify so many of them.

So, with regard to the IMS/RMS, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the likelihood of occurrence, as well as steps to minimize damage in the event of occurrence, as well as alternatives should the worst come to pass.  First, DRIVE THE CAR.  OFTEN.  FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME.  I saw an ad in the classified section of Panorama recently for a 2002 GT2 with less than 1000 miles on it.  What a terrible tragedy.  Maybe that GT2 with its Mezger block would let that slide, but an M96 car will likely not forgive you for such a transgression against enthusiast humanity.  A Porsche (especially a 911) is not a Lamborghini or Ferrari–it is not a centerpiece.  It is meant to be used, and driven, and rained and snowed on, and packed full of groceries or people or luggage or flats of geraniums or bags of golf clubs.  It is a generally accepted truth that a barely-used M96 Porsche with very low miles is at greater risk of IMS/RMS failure than a more-robustly-used one with higher mileage.

Second, while driving the car (after the oil is warm) rev it.  Go fast.  Wind it up and hear the glorious shriek of that flat-six.  Make the engine do what it was designed to do: spin fast, work hard, and get hot.  An M96 isn’t happy with a steady diet of 2000 vegetarian RPM.  It periodically needs a 7000-RPM all-you-can-eat steak and lobster buffet.

Third, change the oil often—do it yourself, it’s easy— and use good oil (Mobil 1 Synthetic is a good start, but there’s more boutiquey stuff out there if that’s your thing).  While changing your oil, cut open and check your old filter (also easy) for any solid debris.  If you see any, STOP—do not pass go, do not collect $200.  By stopping here, you probably just saved your engine—you just need IMS replacement, which in the grand scheme of Porsche repairs is not too expensive (it’s actually somewhat similar price-wise to chain tensioner replacement).

Make it a long-term plan to implement the IMS Solution by LN Engineering and Flat Six Innovations.  This completely removes any chance of the IMS/RMS failure by replacing the flawed assembly entirely.  The same outfit also offers the “IMS Retrofit,” but as I understand it, that’s just a replacement of the flawed parts with slightly better-crafted parts, is only guaranteed for sixty thousand miles, and costs only slightly less than the Solution, as most of the expense in both cases comes in the form of labor.  If you’re going to tear it apart to fix it, it’s worth paying a bit more to ensure the flaw simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Should the worst happen before you get to getting the IMS Solution installed, it would be a sad day.  The engine will need replacing due to the damage incurred from the bits of shattered metal circulating through it.  As one might expect, Porsche engines don’t come cheap.  That’s why I’d have a hard time ignoring Renegade Hybrids’ solution, out in Las Vegas: swap your busted M96 for a Chevy LS-series small-block V8.

So there are plenty of bits of knowledge that, once one has them, make 996 ownership not seem so daunting after all.  But is all this trouble and use of brain-space worth it?  In one word: absolutely.

This blog chronicles many of my adventures in my 996.  It took myself, my wife, and my boys from Vegas to Yosemite to Monterey, and back again.  It took me to Formula 1 in Austin and to IndyCar at Mid-Ohio.  It has moved cross country with me three times in as many years.

In light of all these grand events, sometimes the everyday stuff can get overlooked.  It really shouldn’t.  Show up anywhere and get treated like a rock star.  Stun onlookers by telling them that it’s over a decade old.  Draw compliments several times a week from complete strangers—a guy in a Tesla Roadster, a guy in an old and proudly beat-up F-150, and the McDonald’s drive-thru window kids, one of whom once told me, “You look like James Bond in this car.”  Perhaps my ego is fragile, but I never tire of that particular memory.

Of course, climbing into a Porsche at the end of a work day is nothing if not cathartic.  And it’s nice to save some time getting home by tapping into the power and performance on hand to squeeze through a gap in traffic or duck through a yellow just in time.  Nailing a rev-matched downshift with the perfectly spaced pedals and taking a corner far faster than could the average beige blandmobile is always uplifting as well.  And do you think that my kids won’t forever remember that Dad picked them up from school every day in a Porsche 996 Carrera 4S?

Here’s the magic of the 996: there are so many out there right now, and they get so little respect, that almost anyone can have one and reap all of the same above-noted benefits.  All it takes is a bit of planning and awareness.  People think nothing of a $33,000 Honda Accord or Ford Fusion, but a 996 for that sum?  Crazy, right?  Except you can have a 996 for ten grand less—leaving you with more than enough extra cash to bring up to code whatever might be or go wrong.

I think, maybe a little bit, that I defend the 996 Carrera not only because I own one and love it, but because it demands a bit of knowledge and respect from its owner.  It is not just another thing to be bought, bragged about at parties, and forgotten.  Because it demands such an investment, one of time and thought, rather than just whim and money, it also offers rewards beyond what most ‘things’ can.  It almost forces you to make memories with it.

In summary: right now, 996 Carreras are plentiful, cheap, brilliant, yet surrounded by a whirling sea of discouraging myth.  There has never, nor will there ever be, a better time to buy one.

996 C4S 2

Traffic Enforcement – Or, Really, Roving Tax Collection

alright-meow

 

I recently completed a sizeable road trip in the 996: Iowa to New Mexico, and then the return trip, around a month later. It was about seventeen or eighteen hours of drive time each way, and I tried a different route in each direction, stopping for one overnight rest on each leg. During the second day of the southbound trip, I was pulled over and ticketed. During the first day of the northbound trip, I was pulled over, but not ticketed. As I added these instances to my library of personal brushes with “traffic enforcement” personnel, my opinions on the matters of speeding laws, enforcement, and the related judicial process remained as they have for years, only further hardened: the regulation of speed on public roads in America has very little to do with public safety, fuel conservation, or any such high-minded goal. If any of that takes place, it is an unexpected benefit. In most cases, this practice is nothing but roving, random tax collection and/or municipal revenue generation.

First, I’ll relate the incidents. The second day of the southbound leg was from Clovis, NM to Alamogordo, NM. This involved passing through Roswell, NM, proceeding through the Sierra Blanca Range, then spilling out into the Tularosa Basin. The route is simple—Highway 70 to Highway 54. I was looking forward to getting into familiar territory (Ruidoso) for a bathroom break, and the afternoon weather was nice, and the scenery was lovely, and the traffic was light. And the officer of the law, driving a black Explorer, tagged me traveling in the opposite direction as I rounded the base of a hill. The Explorer turned a quick 180 and stopped me just outside of Hondo, NM. The officer was a kind enough fellow, allowing me to continue my travel to the nearest public restroom before issuing me my citation for 80 in a 60. He was also very clear, nigh encouraging, about where the Magistrate Court was and how I could stop in there for alternative solutions to simply mailing in a “guilty” plea and associated fine.

The second incident occurred somewhere around Meade, KS in the late evening. I was negotiating a steady uphill sweeper when my V1 lit up with a strong Ka-band warning. There was a good bit of traffic flowing in the opposite direction, so, expecting the officer would have to safely exit the traffic, perform a U-turn, and then pursue me, I kept an eye in the rearview. Sure enough, after not too long, some rapidly approaching headlights filled the mirror. With the cruise set at the speed limit, I carried on for some time, the taxman lawman hovering on my bumper. After about ten minutes, he flashed lights and pulled me over for “failing to signal” as the road went from one lane to two and I moved to the right. I was pretty sure that was not an infraction of the law, but it was quickly clear that he wasn’t interested in ticketing me for it anyway.

We went through the usual dance: do you know why I pulled you over,license, registration, insurance. Then he asked me if I had “Any guns or knives in the car? Anything illegal?” Okay, I get that our law enforcement officers have a difficult job, one that can be long hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. I respect them for what they do, and I think I do a good job of getting that message across with my demeanor during a traffic stop—it helps to have a good bit of experience with traffic stops, of course—both hands visible on the wheel, seat belt on, engine and radio off, window down, polite greeting. But I admit to stifling a laugh at the second part of his question. If I did have contraband, would I be expected to just tell him so? I guess at this point, though, many criminals would crack, and they’d do something unintentionally hilarious, extremely dangerous, or unbearably tragic.

Of course, since I wasn’t gun- or drug-running, the answers to his questions came pretty easily. He noted my radar detector, and made a comment that I’d being going pretty quickly and then slowed down. I used the “Clear and Present Danger” defense: I have no recollection, Senator (though not in so many words, of course). I explained to the officer that I was enroute from New Mexico to Dodge City, where I’d booked a hotel for the evening. He brightened, gave me useful directions to Dodge City, and sent me on my way.

It turned out that the fix for offense number one was to plead “no contest” with the Ruidoso Magistrate Court judge, who placed me on ninety days’ “probation” and ordered I pay court fees plus a $50 “donation” to the local Crime Stoppers program. Thus, the cost of the “no contest” plea was about the same as the ticket would have been, except I had to appear in person, which meant I had to return to Ruidoso, which meant I also bought gas and lunch there. Of course, the benefit for me was avoiding the guilty plea and the resulting black mark on my record.

Of course, there was no fix required for offense number two, since I wasn’t ticketed. But it sure felt like the main reason for that was because I’d already arranged to spend money nearby, at the Dodge City hotel.

As far as safety, the officer that pulled me over for offense number one even admitted to personally campaigning to raise the posted limit on the road I’d been on, explaining that the limit of 60 had carried over from when said road was a narrow two-lane instead of the present-day modernized four-lane. Basically, then, the lawman himself admits the law is in place more as a means of legal extortion for the good of the municipality than anything else.

In the second case, I’m fairly certain it was more unsafe for the officer to exit the traffic, perform a U-turn, overtake me, follow me for ten-plus minutes, then pull me over (all at night, remember) than it would have been to just let me carry on with my journey.

These experiences and other, similar ones I’ve had are proof that clearly, the traffic enforcement situation as it exists is ridiculous—it is not keeping the roads, nor the areas around them, safer. Cops that could be posted up in schools or at playgrounds or at convenience stores are sitting alongside roads, choosing drivers at random to impose a random tax on to raise money for their municipality. Cities and towns that could be spending money on infrastructure or parks or education are spending it on speed cameras and traffic court administration. Cars keep getting larger, heavier, and more expensive—why? Because no one in America can be told they’re a terrible driver, so instead our leaders mandate more and more and more crash and pedestrian safety measures (and fuel economy demands). Instead of decrying and attacking the lack of attentiveness, skill, and effort most people put into driving, we allow incompetence and ignorance to slide, and just isolate those traits, and the slovenly individuals that exhibit them, behind tons of high-strength steel and an ever-increasing number of airbags.

Driver education should be more like getting a Day VFR flying license. It should require forty hours’ time with a certified instructor, and include city, freeway, and mixed driving. Merging onto and off of highways, left turns across traffic, right- and left-lane discipline, and parallel parking should all be demonstrated to a degree of proficiency. A “cross-country” trip of longer endurance should be planned and executed. The student driver should have to use a map to find where they are and how to get where they want to go, lest their cell phone die and their navigation system fail to load. They should have to refuel their vehicle, know what an octane rating is, and know the difference between gasoline, various gasoline/ethanol mixtures, and diesel fuels. They should have to change a tire. Lastly, they should know exactly when/how their car will exceed its performance envelope (in varying weather conditions), and what to expect from the vehicle when that happens. Emergency braking and maneuvers training should be a must.

It’s a lot to expect from a 16-year-old, sure. But they will face all of these situations soon enough in the real world, most likely without an experienced driver sitting next to them. I know I did. Is the best solution to just throw teens into the fire? Or can we admit that maybe, just maybe, before we put a near-child in command of some hurtling tonnage of steel, glass, and petroleum product, it might be a good idea to formally and adequately train them? Sure, education (of all kinds) comes at a cost of time and money. But we do it because it’s worth it—and certainly so when it comes to the high stakes, threat-of-life-and-limb world of modern-day driving, wouldn’t you say?

But instead we issue licenses to anyone with a pulse and hide behind the façade of “traffic enforcement,” a meaningless process that somehow is supposed to make all that is wrong, and all that we don’t demand, about our licensing system just go away. It doesn’t. It only sweeps the flaws under the rug while making money for the system that perpetuates those flaws.

Is this post self-serving? Yes. Am I motivated to write it because I got a ticket? Yes. Do those facts make me wrong? Absolutely not. My children will have hours and hours of autocrosses and teen driving courses under their belts before I let them anywhere near a public road. They will read maps and change tires and drive stick. They won’t be depending on an officer of the law to materialize and admonish them to be safer drivers.  Instead, they will have the experience and the knowledge to know where the limits of safety are and thus also know the difference between “traffic safety,” “traffic laws,” and how those two things are, in our current system, completely unrelated.

BadBoysCrop