Racing & Inevitability – The 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans

 

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the endurance race of endurance races.  It takes the category to its most extreme.  The most difficult thing to do when racing at the Circuit de La Sarthe is simply endure.  Make it through to the end.  Through blinding sun down the straight toward Indianapolis.  Through insidious misting rains in the high-speed Porsche corners.  Through dangerous passes where participating drivers might or might not have the visibility and/or awareness to make for a safe, successful maneuver.

Porsche logged its 99th and 100th class wins (GTE Pro and GTE Am) at Le Mans this weekend.  Audi marked its 12th overall win.  Some are tempted to brush off these accomplishments as if they were pre-ordained.  Throw enough money at racing, they say, and you’ll win.  Keep doing it, and you’ll keep winning; it’s inevitable.  There’s an element of truth to that.  Money does matter.  But that flyby sentiment misses the reality—that human beings still must exert extreme effort to make for the desired end result.  And human beings, no matter what they are paid, are fallible.  Especially when faced with a long period of time, as they are at Le Mans.

This axiom of human fallibility is what makes modern auto racing so great.  As the machines become more and more robust and precise and capable, they force the human team leaders, engineers, mechanics, and drivers to rise to an ever-higher standard and execute at an ever-higher level.  At Le Mans, all participant human beings must maintain the highest conceivable alertness and awareness for every millisecond of a full 24-hour period in order not only to hope for victory, but to avoid disaster.  Thus, no racing win of any kind is ever inevitable.  Every racing win is elusive and frustrating and unlikely and exhausting, and is therefore exhilarating when it comes about.  At Le Mans in particular, any victory is an incredible accomplishment—Tom Kristensen’s nine victories at Le Sarthe is perhaps the nearest thing to ‘achieving the impossible’ that I can think of.

However, when a victory does not come about, it is sometimes more than frustrating—it is fatal.

The racing community faced this reality once again on Saturday, June 22nd, 2013 when Aston Martin Racing driver Allan Simonsen experienced a spin near entry to the Tertre Rouge corner just prior to the Mulsanne straight.  The crash occurred on an incredibly slick part of the track—note the other cars of various types spinning in the same spot just moments before—in only the first hour of the race.  His Vantage GTE impacted the trackside barrier rear-first at such a speed that the wall itself needed an hour’s repair.  Simonsen was reportedly conscious when extracted from the car, but he succumbed to his injuries while being attended to at the Circuit Medical Center.

Simonsen was 34.  He had a child.  He had the usual career track: Formula Ford, Formula 3, British GT, the Le Mans Series.  His Twitter feed was that of a busy professional racer—short, to the point, full of shout-outs to fellow racers, mentions of cars (racing and otherwise), and complaints about air travel.  The 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours was his seventh.  He had been chosen to drive a brilliant car (the Astons were fastest in testing and qualifying) made by a prestigious manufacturer celebrating its hundredth year of existence.  He was in his prime and living the dream.

The AMR website went to this, and only this, shortly after the incident and subsequent news release.

As you can see, his family urged Aston Martin to continue its efforts despite their loss.  AMR did just that, running neck-and-neck with Porsche until the last hour, when an ill-timed safety car period brought on by one of the race’s many rain showers knocked Aston out of range of the podium’s top step and forced them to settle for third.

 

The fact is, though, that death could have visited any of the thousands of people out racing cars on this summer weekend.  Anytime a driver straps on a race car and goes out onto a track intending to be the fastest, it might be the last thing he or she ever consciously does.  Thankfully and rightfully, racing has taken many steps to minimize this risk, and driver fatalities occur much less frequently than they used to.  Still, if there is anything inevitable about racing, it is certainly not victory—it is death, and drivers know it.  That is why Simonsen’s family urged his team to continue to battle—no racer would have it any other way.

Congratulations to Audi and Porsche and all of those who worked so hard to enable them to reach the 2013 Le Mans podium’s top step.  Condolences, most heartfelt, to Allan Simonsen’s family, especially to his young one.

Fair and Balanced

 

Settle in for an education, Fox News.

I’m not quite sure why I did this, but I called up foxnews.com a few mornings ago.  I suppose I wanted to know what was going on in the world.  Instead of that, I found a link to an article on foxbusiness.com, entitled “Don’t Buy An Electric Car.”  Look at the picture headlining the article, and you might guess where I’m going with this.  The author is a Mr. Steve Tobak, “a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry” according to the credit at the bottom of the article.

<<deep breath>>

Dear Mr. Tobak,

If you plan on writing an article bashing electric cars and discouraging people from buying them while in the same breath saying you own a Honda Civic Hybrid and “it’s a great car,” it would behoove you to be very clear about your definitions.  Since the Honda Civic Hybrid is excluded from your bashing, I believe that when you say “electric,” you refer to cars whose sole source of power is a battery attached to an electric motor, such as the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Roadster, Tesla Model S, Smart EV, etc.

If that is the case, you should make sure that the Chevrolet Volt is a) not in the headline picture and b) not mentioned in the section of your article where you bash pure electrics.  The Volt is a hybrid, just like your beloved Civic; it does not fit your definition of electric.  The only difference between it and your Civic is that it can go significantly farther and faster on electric power alone.  Once the Volt’s battery is depleted, it keeps going by firing up its internal combustion engine and burning the gasoline in its tank, just like your Honda.

That covers the first of two issues I have with your article: the Volt is a hybrid–not a pure electric–thus not your target.  Get it out of your headline.  My second issue is, well, the rest of your article.

Let us examine the reasons you won’t buy a pure electric.  First, “I’m a car person,” you say, and “the car I want to drive doesn’t come in electric.”  Really?  Your 110hp, 123lb-ft Civic (I’m assuming it’s vintage 2007 or so, given your stated mileage) is a thrill to pilot?  Do you really know anything about the pure electric Tesla Model S, Automobile (and Motor Trend) Magazine’s Car of the Year?  Car and Driver “measured 0-to-60 mph in 4.6 seconds, a quarter-mile of 13.3 seconds at 104 mph, and a governed top speed of  134 mph.”  They also noted that such numbers are “similar to the performance of the V-8 German sedans” with which it competes.  If you are truly claiming that your “great” Civic is better than a car like that, I might say you’re a bit of a Honda fanboy, and that stopped being cool back in 2007.

Electric vehicles “aren’t cost-effective,” you say.  That’s odd, because over the lifetime of my Volt, I’ve averaged 120 mpg.  Given that I paid right about $36,500 for it (after the tax credit, which brings it to not much more than the average new car price) and considering my savings at the pump (120 mpg versus 25mpg in the average car) , I don’t think you can truly say that Volts are reserved for “rock stars and actors.”

What else?  Electric cars are “different,” you say, and you bought a Civic Hybrid because it “looks just like a regular Civic.”  Well, the Volt is based on the “regular” Chevy Cruze, except that the Volt has a hatchback, so I can bring the dog along.  Sorry about that concession to practicality.  Either way, abhorring things that are “different” has never been a well from which eternally springs proud moments in human history, has it?

But “you have to plug it in,” you say.  Well, I suppose we should all stop plugging in our smartphones all the time, because that’s exhausting.  And plugging in the car, well, that requires an equivalent level of effort, so forget it.

Your next gripe is “government subsidies.”  Well, that’s a long debate, there.  But you bought a government-subsidized solar array because it fit your needs and you saw no need to “cut off your nose to spite your face.”  I suppose that means that despite your lofty government-shouldn’t-meddle principles, your actual behavior probably includes a mortgage interest tax credit and child tax credit on top of your solar array subsidy.  The Volt fits my needs, burns very little gasoline, and was affordable to me because of said tax credit.  I wasn’t going to cut off my nose, either.  Am I still in the wrong here?

Lastly, you think this “green” thing is a “fad” which will go away, and you won’t support it while it’s fashionable.  Allow me to correct you.  Justin Bieber is a fad.  One Direction is a fad.  YOLO is a fad (I hardly know what these things are or mean, but Google them if you wish to be enlightened).  Efficient vehicles, however, are here to stay.  The Christian Science Monitor very recently reported that the average fuel economy of the US vehicle fleet has reached an all-time high.  Consumers (yourself included, obviously) demand efficient vehicles and manufacturers are working hard to provide them.  The best way to do so seems to be to build a traditional internal-combustion-engined platform, and then adjust it as required/able to include a mode of electric-only operation or electric assistance.  There are many variations of this theme at present, including your Civic and my Volt, and many more are coming.

There are, of course, those who have attempted to leap forward and leave internal combustion engines to the ashes of history.  Many have derided those enterprising souls and the fruits of their hard labor, because the ingrained cultural mental image of pure electrics tends to look like a Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, or Smart EV…rather small, somewhat homely things with limited utility, high up-front cost, limited range, and long recharge times.  That stereotype has admittedly been well-earned; most pure electrics, including the ones above, do indeed have those problems.

The Tesla Model S, however, does not.  It is lovely to behold, seats six (four adults and two children with the rear-facing seat option), and even the less-expensive version with the smaller battery will manage 200 miles before needing a recharge (which can be accomplished at a rate of 150 miles per 30 minutes at a Tesla Supercharger Station).  Yes, it is expensive, but no more so than its nearest traditional competitors, the likes of the Audi S7 and Mercedes CLS550 (as noted earlier).  But the Model S is like nothing else in the world.  It’s not a copy, not a revision, not a tweak or a facelift or a re-badge.  It is rather a shining example of American risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and engineering.   It is not a mass-market solution, but it is an incredible achievement.  It deserves your accolades for being a great example of what America can still do.  It proves that a “pure electric” can be everything a conventional automobile can be and more.

In summary, your article was misleading and/or uninformed, full of personal opinions and hyperbole, was based on very few actual facts, and ignored what facts directly contradicted it.  I am quite certain that Fox compensated you handsomely.  Congratulations on all your success.

Sincerely,

TheFlatSix

Coming Late 2013 – The Cadillac ELR

Sadly, this year I’m unable to attend the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.  I must depend on my heroes, the real auto journalists, to pass along the latest happenings at the Cobo Center.

Most everyone has had something to say about the new C7 Corvette, but I have two worries: first, that GM’s asking price might be a bit too high, putting it in 911 or R8 territory (see Chris Harris’s tweet on this below, which is hard to argue with), and second, I’m not completely sold on the styling, which seems like it might age a bit poorly.

Less-talked-about of the GM debuts, but certainly of great interest to those of us who tire of spending money on gasoline, is the unveiling of the pre-production Cadillac ELR.  The ELR is the two-door Caddy coupe modeled after the 2009 Converj concept and built around the proven GM Voltec powertrain.  It will arrive in showrooms around the end of 2013, and wow, it is awfully pretty.

Cadillac’s “Art & Science” grille has never been perfect, but it has always been striking.

Automobile magazine suggests that the ELR is what the Volt could have been, had it been given two more years of design refinement.  I disagree–the Volt and the ELR are two distinctly different kinds of vehicle, serving different customers with different needs at different price points.  Wildly different price points, as it turns out–I was hoping ELRs would sticker around $55-60k or so, but Automobile estimates something more akin to $70k.  Cadillac’s global VP Bob Ferguson was also quoted as saying at the unveil that “an additional aspect of the ELR’s appeal will be exclusivity.  It will be a specialized offering produced in limited numbers.”

That may sound disappointing, but the “exclusivity” bit is a convenient bit of corporate posturing–make no mistake, GM will build as many of these as it can sell.  They must, in order to recoup the R&D costs incurred during development of the Voltec powertrain.  The beauty of Bob the VP’s statement is that if the ELR doesn’t sell, GM can say they never planned to build too many in the first place.  And if the ELR flies off dealer lots as fast as it arrives, well, exclusivity means different things to different people, doesn’t it?  There’s always room on the road for a few more cash cows.

We should all desperately hope the ELR is successful.  When they unveiled the Converj, GM’s PR people said it was pure concept, and that the company had no plans to put it into production.  Reaction to the Converj was so overwhelmingly positive, however, that the company changed those plans.  Now, four years later, the customers that said they would buy a Converj need to put their money where their mouth is, or it’s unlikely GM will make a leap–and what a lovely leap it is–like this in the foreseeable future.

Futuristic right-angle taillights carry over almost unchanged from the Converj.

Now for the numbers.  The ELR makes a total of 207 hp and 295 lb-ft from its electric powertrain and 1.4L dino-fired inline four.  That’s a significant tweak up from the Volt’s output, which is 149 hp/273 lb-ft.  But by virtue of its 20″ wheels, increased sound deadening, and rich cockpit materials, the ELR weighs 4070 lbs, almost 300 more than the 3781-lb Volt.  So one suspects that in a 0-60 drag race with a Volt, the Caddy isn’t gonna win by thirty thousand dollars’ worth.  But it’ll look pretty amazing in the process, especially for a car that will get, at worst, 35 real-world mpg while running on gas and infinite real-world mpg as long as the battery is charged.

It should be said that GM is on a bit of a roll right now–the C7 Corvette is sparking lots of interest, the new Silverado is out, the new Malibu and forthcoming Impala look great, the Volt sold triple in 2012 what it did in 2011, and the ELR is breathtakingly pretty.  Seems like America’s investment in saving the company might turn out to be a pretty good one.

Forza Horizon

The primary culprit responsible for the lack of updates to this blog of late is the latest addition to the Xbox Forza Motorsport franchise, titled “Forza Horizon.”  Horizon is a brilliant time waster that takes pure automotive fantasy and digitizes it into a medium that can be experienced and shared, instead of just imagined.

Sadly, Electronic Arts has secured exclusive video-gaming rights to the Porsche brand, leaving Microsoft & Turn 10 Studios to suffer with this lighter, faster, flat-crank-V8 version of the 911.

While at heart Horizon remains (like its forbears) primarily a racing game, this new member of the Forza family trots out paralleling aspects of car culture as well.  No longer confined within the fences of a racetrack, the player can explore a big chunk of a stylized rural Colorado with what must be over a hundred miles of roads.  On and along said roads, there are hidden classics to discover in barns, AI-controlled players driving about that will street race at the drop of a hat, and stunning vistas to make for beautiful photo backgrounds.

Look at this picture and try not to hear that 6.2L V8 bouncing off the limiter.

The driving itself is just as glossy and fantastic as the rest of the experience.  There is no tire wear, no fuel burn, and almost any front-engine rear-drive car will drift gloriously; just turn in, stomp throttle, and apply opposite lock.  Is it realistic?  Heck no.  Is it terrific fun?  Absolutely.  Horizon makes no bones about being a simulation; it leaves that to simraceway and iracing.

Diving into a corner in a twin-turbo R8 GT on slicks.

All this, and yet the fun isn’t confined to just yourself and the AI.  One of the cooperative multiplayer challenges, for example, involves a minimum of four people maintaining in excess of two hundred miles per hour over a five-plus-mile length of highway while keeping in close enough proximity so that everyone crosses the finish line within a three-second gap.  It took myself and three college buddies (spread over three time zones) the better part of maybe a half-hour or so to achieve that goal—I can’t say exactly how much time was spent, because we were having such a ball in the attempts.  Imagine sharing a beautiful highway, a quartet of indestructible Bugatti Veyron Super Sports, and no traffic with three boon companions.  That’s Forza Horizon in a nutshell.  And if that doesn’t sell you, there’s no sense saying any more on the subject.

Of course, in the real world, if we all had Boss 302s, we would NOT do donuts in empty parking lots. Ever.

Austin for F1, kid — Don’t Hate!

The start/finish straight at the Circuit of the Americas.

I attended college at the much-esteemed University of Delaware.  One of the many great things about that school was its geographic location: it sat just off I-95, which meant it always felt like you were mere minutes from anything on the east coast.  Many evenings, we found ourselves blasting north to Philly, where we would gorge ourselves on cheesesteak at the original home of said confection: Pat’s King of Steaks.  My buddy Charles was my most likely companion on these journeys.  He was one year behind me, and so after I’d graduated, I’d often find myself IM-ing him (AOL Instant Messenger! How ancient and quaint, I know) and getting the following away message: “Pat’s for cheesesteaks kid, don’t hate.”  And then I would be not only nostalgic, but jealous.

Many Americans felt the same about Formula 1.  Something great existed solely in our past; it was gone and sorely missed.  There were many who wished for the opportunity to see Formula 1 racing on US soil again.  For those people, Tavo Hellmund and Red McCombs conceived and constructed an absolutely monumental, purpose-built racetrack in Austin, Texas.  They overcame countless trouble spots and obstacles to get it completed on time, and then, on a beautiful, sunny weekend in November, hosted the world’s greatest drivers for the Formula 1 US Grand Prix.  They built it, and people came.  In fact, on race day, over one hundred seventeen thousand people came—including Charles and myself.

The Porsche and I loped ten hours cross-country on Friday to reach the San Antonio area, where we would be staying—even the most modest hotels in Austin were beyond ridiculously priced.  Charles and I were joined by a quintet of five British gentlemen, F1 fans all, a pair of whom I have the honor of being employed alongside.  We all enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the San Antonio branch of Texas de Brazil on Friday evening, and shortly thereafter retired for the night in order to be up early for qualifying the next morning.

For us, the process of getting to the track was somewhat complicated.  There exists a lack of available parking trackside, so the vast majority of spectators would need to be shuttled to the track on school buses from two park-and-ride locations.  With the trip from San Antonio and the traffic in and around the park-and-ride, it consistently took us about two and a half hours one-way to get to the track.  Still, we spent very little of that time at a complete standstill, and on Saturday after doing it for the first time, we arrived—as planned—just in time for qualifying.

Probably was about a 3/4-mile hike from the park-and-ride drop-off point to the track entrance.

It was glorious.  The noise these machines make is an amalgamation of a wing of TIE fighters, all the cop sirens in The Blues Brothers, and an earthquake.  They sound just like they do on TV, just to a degree that violently tears small gravitational singularities into where your eardrums used to be.  There is absolutely nothing else like this noise, and it is utterly intoxicating.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”365″ video_id=”qNO0kS1doZc”]

Qualifying was fantastic, if completely predictable.  Sebastian Vettel hung around and hung around and then, with about three minutes left in the third session, laid down two blistering laps that secured pole position—the second of which made him the only driver to break into the one-minute, thirty-five second range.  Lewis Hamilton was forced to wring every last drop out of his McLaren Mercedes to qualify second.  Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber locked down third.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”365″ video_id=”7dPX4OObj2o”]

The major controversy of the weekend revolved around Scuderia Ferrari opting to voluntarily break a seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox.  Per the rules, Massa was thus penalized five grid positions.  More importantly for Ferrari, though, the penalty actually moved their championship contender Fernando Alonso up one grid position (in reality two positions what with Lotus’ Romain Grosjean also getting a gearbox penalty), and from the “dirty” left to the “clean” right side of the starting grid, where everyone agreed grip for launch was significantly better.  This move could not have worked better for Ferrari; on Sunday when the lights went out and the cars rocketed out of the grid, Alonso catapulted himself from 7th to 4th by the exit of turn one.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”365″ video_id=”ndKK5lI21aU”]

There was action throughout the field for the entirety of the race.  Williams drivers Bruno Senna (nephew of the late, great Aryton) and Pastor Maldonado had a friendly duel for 9th place which lasted until Maldonado secured the spot with just four laps to go.  Felipe Massa, despite quite literally taking one for the team, ran a brilliant race, moving all the way from eleventh on the grid to finish in fourth position, just behind Alonso.  But the biggest drama took place at the very front of the field, where two of the highest-profile drivers in the world mesmerized the audience with a display of pure excellence over all fifty-six laps.

Starting on the dirty side of the grid in second place, Lewis Hamilton dropped to third at the start, with both Vettel and Webber pulling away in the Red Bull Renaults.  It quickly became apparent, however, that Webber could not deny Hamilton for long.  Just a few laps in, Hamilton got by the Australian, who shortly thereafter retired with alternator problems.  And then the world watched as tenth by tenth, Hamilton reeled in reigning world champion Vettel.

The two drag-raced down the back straightaway lap after lap, Hamilton utilizing the Drag Reduction System on his McLaren to narrow the gap.  Finally on their forty-sixth turn of the circuit, Hamilton danced past Vettel on the straightaway, bulls-eyed the braking point for turn twelve, and never looked back.  He would take the checkered flag with his fourth victory of the season.  Red Bull would clinch the 2012 manufacturer’s championship on the day, but their celebration was muted as the driver’s championship will come down to the wire between Vettel and Ferrari’s Alonso (who finished third in Austin) on the weekend of November 25 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Lewis carrying on the tradition.  Oh, and they hand out pretty sweet podium hats in Texas.

Overall, the entire event was simply stunning.  Our seats were in the Turn 15 stands, with an overview of all the slow corners from 12 through 15.  This was where a large part of the overtaking action took place, so we certainly got our money’s worth.  Our British friends were over in the Turn 12 stands, which were a temporary fixture (benches only, as opposed to our folding seats) and prone to swaying with the tide of the crowd—a rather unsettling feeling, they reported in typical understated fashion.  Still, their seats were the prime spot for Hamilton’s overtake of Vettel, as they could see fully down the back straight.  And with their countryman taking home the victory, they could hardly complain.

Naysayers said that the track location would prohibit successful crowd ingress and egress, but the logistics seemed to win out on race weekend.  While it was undoubtedly slow to get into the park-and-ride locations, there were plenty of shuttle buses, which minimized the wait to board said buses and get to the track.  For the high rollers, there was almost nonstop helicopter activity to the track from Austin and points beyond.  Each day—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—the volume of visitors exceeded expectations.  As a result, there were tales of concessionaires running out of food and beer, but we never had a problem.  Lines were long, but to avoid waiting, we simply found the shortest one (which happened to be for a delicious chicken and shrimp paella bowl—all those who waited an eternity for a burger missed out) and ate what they served.  We also brought our own water via CamelBak.

The only downside?  It’s a whole another year until we can do this again.  Unless we rent the track ourselves, which is fifty grand per day.  Still, it’s an awesome facility, the race itself was incredible (no crashes and not a single full-course caution—just wall-to-wall speed), and the logistics came off pretty well without a hitch.  I believe I can speak for almost everyone when I say I’m very much looking forward to the 2013 Formula 1 US GP.  Welcome back to the United States, Formula 1.  We missed you.

The New Arrival

On Saturday, September 15, my little family unit brought home a 2012 Chevrolet Volt, resplendent in White Diamond Tricoat with a Light Neutral Leather interior.  It stickered at $45,729, dealer invoice was $43,700, and we closed at $43,500.  We traded in our 2004 Nissan Murano SL AWD with just over 133k on the clock for $7k.  After tax, title, and fees, $37,941 was the total on the car.  Because it’s my first-ever GM ownership experience and the Volt is a rather complex bit of tech, we also rolled $2,675 into a Platinum Protection Plan good for 6 years or 125k miles.  We had a GM Card Earnings Rebate of $1,000 factored in as well, which brought the amount financed (at zero percent over 72 months) to $39,616.  The last bit of math to do here is the inclusion of the federal “Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Credit” tax adjustment, to the tune of $7,500.  When all is said and done, I’ll spend a total of $32,116 in liquid assets for the purchase of this car and the warranty—not much more than the average new-car purchase price in the United States.  But that’s just the money.  This is a post about the future.

THE STORY

It was a long journey that brought our family, and specifically me, to this point.  It started with seeing the Volt concept at an auto show back in 2008, then seeing it morph at subsequent shows to its present production form.  It continued with the Volt pulling down impressive awards: Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile of the Year” (2011) and Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” (2011) among them.  The Volt got a whole chapter in Bob Lutz’s latest book as well.  In all cases, it was presented as a widely misunderstood winner of a car that carried an admittedly high sticker price but offered incredible fuel savings if employed in a certain way.  Whenever I glimpsed one in person, I was always struck with a sense of the intriguing possibilities it presented—especially its unique ability to make a 40-ish mile trip purely under electric power while still retaining the option to press onward ad infinitum (at 37mpg combined) as long as there was premium fuel in the 9.3-gallon tank.

The Volt Concept, circa 2008.

In mid-2012, for the first time in my military career, we moved into a house on base.  Suddenly I wasn’t paying for electricity (they haven’t figured out how to bill individual households on the base grid yet) and the only driving that we needed to do was from base to town and back, twice a day, four days a week, for the boys’ preschool.  The Murano had some quirks from many long, hard miles, we were perpetually worried that it would fail us at an inopportune time, and now it seemed silly to burn $65 in gas per week at a subpar rate of 18-20mpg when we could be making that trip for free in a new Volt.

The only nearby option was right in town at the local dealer, and had been there for quite some time.  It was packed with almost all of the options available on a Volt, and actually had been branded with a huge vinyl “VOLT” graphic when it arrived in our little burg.  The combination of the graphic, the near-$46k sticker, and the many common misunderstandings about the Volt must have scared buyers off.  The car languished around the dealer lot, getting a lot of looks but apparently not many serious inquiries, for a long while.  At some point, they took the graphic off.  I finally test-drove it on Saturday, August 25—just a quick loop around town.  It drove like a heavy-but-low-CG, ultra-quiet, aerodynamically optimized engineering marvel, essentially as I expected.  Most critically, however, the dog could fit in the back under the sloping rear glass hatch.  From a practical standpoint, I now knew the Volt could carry our whole family.

Post-test-drive, I went home and sat down in front of Google Maps.  It was 12 miles one-way from home to preschool.  There seemed little doubt that the Volt could easily make the round trip on electrons alone.  I went for another test-drive on Saturday, September 8, this time with the wife and kids.  While impressed with the car itself, my lovely significant other maintained a bit of skepticism.  After only a short test-drive, how could we be certain that the Volt (which would demand a significant monthly payment due to the high sticker price) would essentially zero out our gasoline expenditures by operating in electric-only mode for the vast majority of driving time?  After all, if it could not do that, then it was certainly not worth the premium we would pay over a more traditional vehicle.

The answer to that very question came in a call from the dealer that afternoon.  Take it home for three days, they said.  Use it for some weekend driving and some work-week driving.  Bring it back on Tuesday and tell us what you think.

We did just that—and the Volt knocked it out of the park for those three days.  Sunday morning, we (myself, wife, kids, and dog) took it up to Cloudcroft, NM, which involves a climb of 4,172 feet up a mountainside over 16.3 miles of road.  Set to “Mountain” Mode, the car burned almost exactly 1 gallon of gas on the way up while maintaining an 8-mile electric-only reserve.  On the way back down, with the “gear selector” in “L” mode, maximizing regenerative braking, the car actually recharged about 20% of its total battery capacity (showing 16 miles of electric range at the bottom of the mountain), and thus was able to carry us all the way home on electrons alone.  On Monday, the car easily handled preschool duty without burning a drop of gasoline and with plenty of electric range left over.  Even better, recharging on a typical 120V household outlet, it would completely top off its battery in the five hours between the morning and afternoon runs—meaning there would be essentially zero chance of using any gasoline during our usual routine, and no need for the expensive, optional 240V charger.   In those three days, the Volt sold itself.  After dropping it off back at the dealer on Tuesday, we brought it home for good about 96 hours later.

THE DRIVE

To suddenly dual-wield colloquialisms, I’ll be straight up with you right off the bat—the Volt is not “fun to drive” in the traditional sense.   That is, it doesn’t smoke tires with egregious acceleration, doesn’t peel your face off your skull in corners, doesn’t offer amazing sight lines or tactile feedback, and doesn’t make a glorious, primeval noise.  It is, however, fun to drive in a wholly different manner—it involves the driver by visually presenting numerous data points toward achieving one singular goal: maximizing electric range.  Every decision one makes at the helm of this car has a direct effect on that most critical metric of performance.

When driving the Porsche, I find myself rev-matching and late-braking when approaching corners, then mashing the gas on exit and winding the flat six up to redline.  I revel in the noise, the gearbox, the steering, the weight transfer—that’s what a 911 is for.  In the Volt, the focus is entirely different.  The driver’s primary raison d’etre becomes twofold.  First, think ahead of the car.  Second, remain smooth with all inputs.  Do so, and there is an immediate, quantifiable reward: greater electric range.  Cruise at 75 and the battery charge depletes wholesale instead of retail, so you back it off and cruise at 65 instead.  Brake late and/or accelerate quickly and again, the battery meter shows rapid discharge.  Again, you adjust your driving style.  Going uphill?  Toggle “Mountain Mode” ON ahead of time to retain battery energy and fire up the gas-burning 1.4L inline four.  Going back downhill, or approaching a traffic light?  Shift into “L” mode to store all that now-unneeded kinetic energy in the 16-kWh battery.  Keep the windows closed at speed for better aerodynamics, and leave the climate control in “Fan only” or “Eco” mode as opposed to “Comfort.”  There’s nearly always something the driver can do to effect electric mileage, and that makes the car fun to drive in its own, completely unique, way.  Lastly, if the driver isn’t interested in maximizing range, the instantaneous torque from the electric motor provides very competitive acceleration, should a right foot command it.

Even after the battery’s energy is depleted, the car remains a nice place to be.  The sound of the gasoline engine is distant and muted, and the transition from electric to gas power is seamless.  The leather seats are fantastic—I think I read an auto journalist somewhere saying he wished GM would put these seats in the Corvette (a car which has long been maligned for subpar seats).  The LCD screens are responsive and easy to navigate—the Volt’s infotainment system has just the right mixture of real buttons and virtual buttons.  The 30GB hard drive will house enough music for all four people in the car.  If someone wants to add their own songs, it’s simple: plug something into the USB slot or pop in a CD, then hit “REC”—and it’s done.  The disc player will even play DVDs on the center screen.  And every last shred of media sounds fantastic through the Bose speakers.

THE VALUE

Let’s keep it simple—as mentioned, we closed at $43,500 for the car alone.  The tax credit maxes out at $7,500 (we checked and we’re eligible for every last dime of that; every filer’s eligibility varies, of course).  Our GM Card Rebate was pretty easy to get—anyone can sign up for that credit card and the rewards add up fairly quickly.  So $43,500 less $8,500; quick math, and that’s thirty-five grand.  For that, we got leather, nav, Bose, two LCD screens, a 30GB HDD, USB connectivity, backup camera/sensors, and Bluetooth.

The internal-combustion-only competition to the Volt could be any number of things, but the bottom line is that about the least amount of money one could pay for a new, similarly equipped non-sedan vehicle (dog can’t go in a trunk) with leather is about $25k—and there are only a very few vehicles that fit in that category.  The Subaru Impreza 5-door and the VW Jetta Sportwagen are two that I considered.

In the case of the Impreza and the Jetta, though, every time you stop at a stoplight, you’re still burning fuel (non-US Imprezas have auto-stop-start, but US ones do not).  Every time you pull into a drive-through, you’re still burning fuel.  Idling on a hot or cold day to make use of the climate controls?  Still burning fuel.  And even when all three of these cars are leaned out on the highway, burning dino-juice, the Volt is still the best—40 mpg to the 31 or 35 of the competitors.

So even though there’s a ten-grand (at most) difference up front between the Volt and its competition, that number shrinks over time with fuel savings.  And when you realize that the Volt is one car with two powertrains (including a $10k battery) and all of the mechanical whizbangery needed to tie them together in seamless operation, it suddenly seems like a screaming deal—you’re not paying much more than the average new-vehicle price for a vehicle that is certainly far more than average.

THE VERDICT

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m enjoying the Volt, and you are correct.  I think it’s not only good value, but a shining example of American engineering excellence and a showpiece for what GM can do.  Regrets?  Well, I wish I’d gotten a little more for the Murano, but at the same time I realize that I would almost certainly have had trouble selling it myself in this locale.  I’m a little torn about the warranty, but the Volt is so complex and so unlike anything else I have ever owned that I cannot be convinced it was a bad idea.  One part of me wishes I’d jumped on the 36-month lease program that is honestly an even more incredible, screaming deal (the lease winds up essentially being $0/month when you figure the fuel savings)—but putting the boys and the dog in a car that’s subject to a leasing agreement is a risky proposition at best, I think.

Really what I wanted was the rarity, exclusivity, and performance of the Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi; the interior space, interior quality, and fuel efficiency of the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI; and the reliability, simplicity, and all-season usefulness of the Subaru Impreza Sport Limited.  The Volt and its warranty allowed me to get all the best of those things in one vehicle.

Obviously, this isn’t a car for everyone.  If you have three or more kids, or more than one large dog, it won’t work.  If you need to tow things, it won’t work.  If you’ve got a supremely long commute and/or can’t plug in at work, then you might be better off with a diesel of some kind.  But for my two-child, one-dog family, living in a house on-base with no electric bill, I think it’s perfect.

Do one thing—drive this car.  Do so over a period of a few days, if they’ll let you.  Judge it purely on its merits as a means of transportation.  I think you will find it makes a mighty compelling case for itself as a real-life car of the future.

Tesla vs. Detroit, a.k.a. Apples vs. Oranges

Adam Hartung, contributor to Forbes magazine, recently made a splash by writing this article, entitled “Why Tesla is Beating GM, Ford, and Toyota — Electric Cars.”  He contends that Tesla’s product is in fact so superior, it will vault Tesla into a leading role in the automobile business, just as Amazon is now a retail leader, Craigslist now a classified ad leader, etc.  I disagreed and responded in the comments section, but I’m not sure if my comment will see the light of day, so I thought I’d present it here as well:

Adam, here’s the root problem with your comparisons to the net-savvy start-ups that the established brick-and-mortars laughed at: Craigslist, Amazon, Apple, etc., all offer services that just about everyone can use.  Anyone who can walk to a library can use Craigslist or Amazon.  Anyone with a job can (pay a premium to) buy and use an Apple product.

However, to use a Tesla product, your earnings had best be well into the six-figure range.  And you’d best live in an urban area.  Make that an urban area in the American southwest, close to Tesla HQ for service and where winter won’t increase your range anxiety.

What I think Bob Lutz is getting at in his reply to you is that Ford, GM, and Chrysler offer affordable, reliable, usable transportation for everyone.  The average new car sale price is just below $31k.  No manufacturer can (yet) do electric, reliable, and usable for the masses from New York to Portland to Fargo to Seattle to San Diego to Dallas to Miami at $31k.

The Volt gets close.  The only problem with proud papa Lutz’s Volt—the problem that caused a five-week production hiatus earlier this year— is that it retails (per Chevrolet.com) for $39,145 minimum, which doesn’t make sense to the average consumer in the market for a small sedan.  Realize that a) the buyer has to be eligible for the tax credit—they may not be able to get all $7500 of it—and b) the buyer’s up-front cost is still $39,145, so that’s the number that drives the financing decisions.  Believe me, I’ve been trying to finagle a way to get a Volt for myself because I love the idea of actively controlling how much I spend on gas, but the cost/benefit just doesn’t add up in my case.

If price is a problem for the Volt, then it’s going to be a bigger problem for the Model S.  The base price of the least-expensive Model S is $58,570.  If the Volt has trouble making a case for itself at $39k, how well can the Model S be expected to do once all of the well-heeled, “green” early adopters in LA, Phoenix, and Vegas are satiated?

A Model S is not a car that anyone NEEDS.  The big automakers are the pros at what they do because they can crank out millions of Cruzes, Fusions, Camrys, Civics, F-150s, and Silverados—cars that the average buyer needs—at prices the average buyer can afford.   When Tesla Motors does that, I’ll be first in line.  And I expect that line to be a lengthy one.

Airborne

Everyone should have a good “airborne in a car” story.  This is mine.

It was the spring of 2003, and I was enjoying life as a college senior with a few months left of irresponsibility before the real world set in.  As an added bonus, good ol’ Dad had let me sell his 1998 Toyota Corolla CE 5-speed to assist with the purchase of my very own 2003 Acura RSX Type S.  Thanks, Pop.

Anyway, school wasn’t too far from home, and one weekend I made the trek back to hang out with my best bud (and later best man, who would later call me out in front of the entire wedding reception, including Dad, about an accidental off-roading incident in the Corolla back in high school—but that’s another story).  We were out tearing around in the new ride without a care in the world.  Mom had wanted us to grab a few things for dinner, so one of our stops was gonna be the SuperFresh.

Now, the standard route to the SuperFresh involved some pretty heavily-trafficked roads, especially on the weekends at midday.  However, as there usually is in eastern PA, there was a back way.  I was quite familiar with this back way—I knew, for example, that it was newly repaved, and included one of those slight-incline-into-a-sudden-drops that bring your stomach up into your eyeballs even when negotiated at speeds well below the legal limit.  Check it out on Google Earth at 40° 4’40.59″N, 75°40’13.44″W.

I hadn’t been this way before in the Acura, because I hadn’t been very many places at all in the Acura, having only owned her for a couple months.  I wasn’t quite in tune with how much faster she was than your average Corolla.  I do, however, remember quite clearly telling my bud to hold the two bottles of Sprite Remix in the cupholder down—right before I downshifted into third and pressed the gas to the floor.  I think the fastest I’d ever crested that rise before was about forty-five…not sure, but I’m thinking we were goin’ about sixty-five or seventy on this attempt.

It occurred to me as the road fell away that it did so more quickly and with greater authority than it ever had before.  Time slowed, and I turned my head to look at my cohort.  I noted the leaves and branches that were passing by outside the window behind him, and mused that they were a marked departure from the usual trunks and roots one normally sees when operating a motor vehicle within its accustomed environment.  Anyway, my associate was staring right back at me, and we in unison hollered, “OH, SH*T!”

A higher power smiled on us that day, and the front-engine, front-drive Acura leaned forward so that as we re-entered the atmosphere, she touched down on all fours simultaneously, still on the down-slope of the hill.  A guy in an Explorer going the other way gaped at us with eyes the size of dinner plates as we shot past.

The next good place to stop was the SuperFresh parking lot, and we parked out on the far reaches so we could give Acura a good looking over after the adrenalin shakes wore off.  Clean.  Flawless.  Nothing but a couple scrapes on the underbody plastic.  My buddy howled, “AGAIN!”

We didn’t go again, and I’ve grown up a bit since then.  Still, there are many days when I wish that I still had that car…and that Honda/Acura still had an ounce of excitement in their lineup.

Driven – The 2012 Subaru Impreza Sport 2.0

Lately, the family car has been showing its age a bit.  Our beloved 2004 Nissan Murano SL AWD has just enough niggling issues that the wife and I have been considering getting something to replace it.  It’s never fun to start making car payments again, so we’re definitely slow-rolling the shopping process.  But this past weekend I had some business to conduct in El Paso, so I booked a test-drive of one of our prime candidates: the new Subie Impreza 5-door.

I first beheld the 2012 Impreza at the Detroit Auto Show this past January.  The numbers stand out on their own: 36 mpg highway, all-wheel-drive standard, starting at $17.5k for the sedan, $18k for the five-door.  What is NOT immediately apparent, however, is how much room there is inside this car.  In fact, while at the auto show I distinctly remember sitting inside it and thinking that we would have no problem fitting our boys and dog inside.  However, much more recently, I saw one parked out in the wild and second-guessed myself.  From the outside, there does not appear to be much room behind the second row at all, and I wondered if I’d somehow been deceived at the show.  Solution: I brought the dog, Memphis, along to the test drive in order to settle the matter once and for all.

Props to the sales staff at Garcia Automotive Group; without so much as a blink, my sales guy threw open the rear hatch and told me to bring on the seventy-plus-pound female yellow Labrador.  Memphis loves cars and was thrilled when I picked her up (didn’t want her claws scratching the bumper) and plunked her into the little Subie.

With the hatch closed, quarters were certainly cozier than in the Murano—while facing forward, Memphis’ head seemed somehow more able and apt to venture over the rear seatbacks into the rear passenger area than in the Nissan.  But she certainly had plenty of room to turn around, or sit and look out the rear window, or just lie down and nap.  In fact, she enjoyed the Subie so much that after I got her out, she tugged at the leash, wanting to jump back in.  So if you have a medium-sized dog and think you’re stuck with SUVs, I urge you to try the crop of small, fuel-efficient five-door hatchbacks (Impreza, Focus, Mazda3) coming out these days.

With the dog secured back in the Nissan, we struck out for the test drive.  First impression: the car feels planted and incredibly stable.  The center of gravity feels like it’s down around the driver’s hips.  Maybe it’s a result of stepping out of the Murano and into the Impreza, but I gotta agree with Ezra Dyer—handling-wise, the Subie is a winner.  Scratch that.  Handling-wise, the Subie is a champion.

Which is good, because the 148-horse, 145-lb-ft flat four is, well, not.  This car is not burdened with excessive power.  I was concerned enough about the limits of the engine’s capability that I made sure to get some freeway on-ramp experience during my time behind the wheel.  At one point I wanted to speed up and merge ahead of an oncoming minivan.  The Lineartronic CVT to grabbed a lower ratio for me as I stomped the go pedal, but even when operating at the top of its power curve, the Subie’s engine is hardly awe-inspiring.  Still, there was enough power beat the minivan and safely enter the flow of traffic.  Plan ahead if you need some speed.

Once established and cruising at highway pace, though, the Subie’s best qualities stand out.  You feel the low-CG/planted phenomenon at all times.  The visibility is excellent in all directions.  The CVT gives you a nice, high ratio that results in the tach needle hovering right around the big “2” and almost no powertrain noise.  The driver’s seat is perfectly formed, supportive, and comfortable.  All of these things—the stability, the visibility, the quiet, the comfort—combine to give the driver a great sense of security and serenity.  This car is downright refreshing to drive at a typical commuter’s level of intensity.

Another thing to enjoy about the Impreza is its simplicity.  The lack of touchscreens, menu paths, big red “start” buttons, and please-steal-my-car transmitter key fobs are blessings from above.  If you were wondering how Subaru can offer this car at such a good price, it’s because they’re not forcing all that useless nonsense down customers’ throats.  Oh, and the e-brake is a lever, not a button.  That was directed at you, Porsche 991.

So what’s not to like?  As long as you realize that this is a small and economical family car, I have trouble finding any faults.  Yeah, it’s got a CVT, and only 148hp…boo hoo.  No one, not even me, is taking their Impreza to a racetrack.  Some say they don’t like the noises the CVT makes, but I honestly didn’t notice a thing except how quiet it was at cruise.  Mazda marketers would have you believe that the Skyactiv Mazda3 5-door is faster or racier or more fun, and maybe it is, but the Impreza packs AWD, makes about the same power, and only weighs about a hundred extra ell-bees.  Same arguments apply to the Ford Focus 5-door, which despite being even lighter (2,907 versus 2,969) and a bit more powerful (160hp versus 155) than the Mazda, seems to get a bit of a yawn from the enthusiast camp.  As far as I’m concerned, the torque going to the rear axle in the Subie more than compensates for the extra poundage and the few missing horses.  The only downside I can see with the Subie is more a matter of personal choice.  In order to get the more upscale-looking, less hot-in-the-southwest-sun, light-colored leather interior, I have to step all the way up to the Limited model (which deletes the 5-speed manual option), and my exterior color becomes no longer a matter of choice, but a coin flip: black or white.

Overall, it is my opinion that Subaru hit it out of the park with this new Impreza and deserves to be rewarded for their efforts.  Good-looking, simple and comfortable, great gas mileage, tasteful and spacious inside, and all-weather capable.  I think I’ll probably find myself contributing to Fuji Heavy Industries’ coffers fairly soon.