Farewell, Saab

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

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

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

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

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

Saabaru vs. Subaru

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

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

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

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

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

“SENNA” ON NETFLIX INSTANT!

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

My recommendation: see it immediately.

Rennsport Reunion IV – Part 5: The Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passat TDI versus 458 Italia

Am I the only one that’s noticed this?

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

Back East

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

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

The Porsche GT2RS, and Prius = Tebow

I love spending time in California, because time spent there guarantees spotting both amazing and, shall we say, thought-provoking cars.  While on the road for the trip detailed in the last post, we saw:- Two (2) Volts, one owned by an auto glass business.
– One (1) Nissan Leaf.  What is the plural of “Leaf?”  What if I’d seen two?
– One (1) Prius V.
– Two (2) new Kia Rios.  I wasn’t even aware these existed until I saw them and a billboard advertisement for them.
– One (1) Ford Aspire, which I laughed at, causing my wife to look at me quizzically.  “What’s that?” she asked.  “Pretty much the worst car Ford ever made,” was my reply.  “Even the name implies you should be trying harder.”  That amused her.
– One (1) Aston Martin V8 Vantage, which is pretty cool I guess.
– One (1) Porsche GT2RS, which is exponentially cooler.

The GT2RS was black with red graphics and passed me on the right as it headed for an exit ramp.  The sound was a reserved snorty rumble, hinting at the barely contained force of 620 twin-variable-geometry-turbocharged horses under the rear decklid.  My reaction was at first irritation (I hate being passed on the right), then stunned amazement, then disbelief, then a sort of embarrassed, apologetic, quiet respect for the motoring deity that I had just briefly shared time and space with.  With your $245,000 racecar for the street, you can pass me on whichever side you want, sir.

In California, though, you get both edges of the car sword–the awesome and the inexplicable.  On Thanksgiving Day, we attended a party at a gorgeous house at a small vineyard.  I didn’t know about ninety-five percent of the people there, nor did I especially want to after overhearing one conversation in the kitchen.  About five people were gathered around, talking about the speed they would typically set the cruise control to in their Prii when commuting.

My brain ground to a halt.  I was unable to form coherent thoughts.  I had no way of inserting some sanity into the conversation because it was so utterly removed from my reality.  You all own Prii?  You are proud enough of this fact that you volunteer the information at parties?  All five of you think a discussion about what speed you set the cruise to is interesting?  WHY?  Judging by the look of this place, you all have money and a modicum of taste, so you’re certainly not trying to trim your budget by minimizing what you spend on gasoline, and you don’t think the car is good-looking.  So why own one?

Not knowing any of these people, there was no way I could ask these questions without making a scene, so being the well-bred guy that I am, I just settled myself down and walked away.  But that’s the thing about the Prius.  It’s the Tim Tebow of the automotive world.  One sect of people adore it for their reasons, and another sect hate it for theirs.  It makes its fans feel better about themselves for little or no quantifiable reason. It’s not a great performer by the usual metrics, but it’s a stunning sales success.

But the GT2RS, that’s Aaron Rodgers.  World Champion and MVP.

LA Auto Show AND a newsbyte you won’t find anywhere else

“I love it when a plan comes together,” quoth the great Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith.  I said the same when I saw the LA Auto Show, Thanksgiving, and some time off from work all coalesce on my calendar.  Needing to pick up some Craigslist purchases in LA, and also planning to top the whole thing off by visiting some old friends in San Diego, we packed up our 2004 Nissan Murano, rented a U-Haul trailer, and headed west.The drive from Vegas to LA sucks.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently.  Primm, Barstow, and Baker are  Shakespearean tragedies of towns, there’s absolutely nothing else of interest on the way, and there will always inevitably be heavy traffic somewhere on the route.  The drive always takes longer than you think it will, and always FEELS like it takes even longer than that.  We finally arrived, exhausted, at our friends’ place outside San Diego at around 8pm.  We were thrilled to be there but were unable to celebrate for long–everyone was passed out by 11.

Wednesday morning, we grabbed breakfast and headed north for the LA Auto Show and our Craigslist items.  We dropped off our trailer at my wife’s sister’s place, then headed over to the Convention Center.
Porsche was the first display we visited, and it was great to see them showing off the Black Swan GT3 RSR that took the ALMS GTC championship this year.  Of course, the GTC class is made up entirely of GT3 RSRs, so any champion would certainly have been welcome.  Porsche’s big premiere at the LA show was the Panamera GTS.  I understand why this was the case, as I saw more than a fair share of Panameras in the SoCal area on this trip.  Porsche is only too happy to oblige their rich LA customers with more model diversity.  Gotta keep it exclusive.  Additionally, it was also the first time the unwashed masses got to see the new 991…but we saw it earlier at Rennsport Reunion IV, so if you want more on that, keep reading those posts.

As has been the case the last few years in LA, the Ford display was amazing.  It took up a huge chunk of the main hall and featured an SVT Raptor where the body would lift off of the frame to show off the incredible suspension, closed-circuit TV mini-gameshows for giveaways, the new Escape, a Mustang on a dyno…one could spend hours in the Ford display alone.

The Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep display was well-executed, even if they don’t have the cash to be blowing big money on their square footage like Ford does.  Instead, they featured an SRT display: just the four SRT models together with animated functioning cutaways of their engines chugging away next to them.  One Toby-Keith part of me really wants a 300 SRT8 or Charger SRT8–simple, big, loud, fast, All-American.  Oh, and Chrysler also did a nice job playing up one of their best current, more sophisticated features: the 8.1-inch display that’s going into the 300/Charger.  It was the centerpiece of a cockpit mockup, and kept the boys occupied pressing its touchscreen for a good ten-plus minutes.

I have no interest in any Kias, but it was nice of Kia to throw down a huge lit dance floor with a digitally enhanced “mirror” above it, so my sons could dance with digital hamsters.  In fact, when we got to the Las Vegas auto show a few days later, the first thing #1 said was, “Let’s go to the dancing!”

Audi was just too overcrowded.  I love the cars and wish the company the best, but Audi is so “in” right now that I cannot fathom purchasing one for myself.  The R8 GT is beautiful, the TT RS is a mini R8 with a five-cylinder snort, the A7/S7 is stunning, and the A6 is is profoundly competent, but the members of the  crowd around the Audis were more interested in buying status symbols than cars.  Fortunately for most of them, Audi sells a more expensive VW Golf called the A3, and the front-drive CVT A4.  Ugh.

Mitsubishi embarrassed themselves by centering their display on the i-MIEV, or whatever they call their abomination of an EV.  It looks so golf-cart flimsy that I refuse to believe that the thing meets any collision standards whatsoever.  The worst part about the display, however, was that the featured car had fake wood-panel doors.  This begs for a SNL Weekend Update “REALLY?” segment.  Honestly, the only thing that “car,” if you can call it that, has going for it is that the electric motor is in the back, and it’s rear-drive.  So basically the i-MIEV, as noted on Top Gear, is a Porsche 911.  Right?

Chevy brought along three (3) Volts.  And charging hardware, too.  Neat.  Shame they all seem to be at auto shows instead of dealers.  And where is the Volt advertised, anyway?  How come the only pub I see for it seems to be coming from the clueless televised news, which constantly reports (with a lawsuit-worthy level of inaccuracy) that Volts spontaneously combust in crash tests?

The Cadillac Ciel was present at the show in all its glory.  I have trouble picturing how it could possibly still look good with the top up, but as a spectacle at an auto show, it is drop-dead gorgeous.  My picture did not turn out well, so here’s one from the Monterey Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The Ciel looks so much like a long, slab-sided American luxury battleship that they should limit production to fifty and instead of numbering them, name them after the states.

Son #2 was not doing so well at this point, so the wife took him back to the car, and #1 and I breezed through Mazda and Subaru.  The CX-5 looks like a strong choice for a recently married (or perhaps long-term committed) enthusiast type with a less-than-large dog, if you must have a crossover instead of a wagon.

And of course the Subaru BRZ concept was in place, drawing a crowd.  Subie PR folks refused to give out performance or price numbers, only saying the official unveil of the production model would take place very soon at the Tokyo Motor Show.  Always a good thing to have inexpensive, front-engine, rear-drive, 4-seat cars in the world.  Thank you, Subaru.

That wrapped up my experience at the LA Auto Show.  I took #1 back to the car after he said, “Let’s go see Mommy.  No more cars, Daddy.”  I was a bit disappointed, but knew that it would be impossible for me to get the six more hours I’d need to cover the entire show in depth, so we called it a day.

Now, about that bit you won’t read anywhere else: I have been on the cusp of calling Ford to ask this question since it hasn’t been reported anywhere, but was able to get my answer on the show floor.  In their massive display area, Ford had a few tricked-out Flex models sitting about, and I asked one of the PR guys standing nearby if they planned to keep building the Flex, given the somewhat disappointing sales numbers.  His answer was an emphatic YES, because even though they don’t sell as many as they would like, the feedback from the folks that have bought them is so overwhelmingly positive that Ford feels that continued production is worthwhile for the purpose of retaining those happy customers.  Additionally, they find that for many buyers, the Flex is their first Ford, so it’s an excellent product for stealing customers from other manufacturers.  When the wife’s parents were looking for a new vehicle a year or so ago, one of my suggestions was a Flex SEL Ecoboost, and they wound up custom-ordering one from Dearborn.  I’ve put in a fair bit of time behind the wheel and it is exceptional.  It’s a small, luxurious bus with a rocket attached to it in the form of the Ecoboost V6, which is a superb engine choice for the vehicle.  You can easily take six people along with you and still crush the average sedan in a 0-60 fight for a merge onto an on-ramp.

There you have it, the 2011 LA Auto Show.  Read more about our latest west coast trip in the days to come.

 

Rennsport Reunion IV – Part 4 – The Journey, Concluded

The Whoa Nellie Deli (whoanelliedeli.com) is situated inside what is locally called “The Mobil” in Lee Vining, CA.  Nothing they sell at the place, gas or food, is inexpensive, but there’s a lovely outdoor eating area, a view of Mono Lake, and to be fair and honest, the gas is actually cheaper than at the other nearby station in downtown Lee Vining.We took our food to go, gassed up, and pressed on–not directly into Yosemite, but instead just a few minutes north to the US Forest Service Mono Lake Visitor’s Center.  We ate our lunch out on the deck there, taking in the fresh mountain lake breeze and the sunlight.  The young ones were a little hard to control, but they deserved a little run-around time.  The Visitor’s Center seems fairly new and was only lightly trafficked while we were there.  The view from our lunch spot is fantastic–check the panoramic shot on Google Earth at N 37 58′ 01.37″, W 119 07′ 11.51.”  And then, uh, imagine that in color.  Who posts a 360-degree shot like that in black and white, anyway?

Refreshed, we climbed back into our speedy little Stuttgart cocoon and struck out for Yosemite.  We hadn’t even gone through the gate yet when we passed Ellery Lake, elevation 9,472′.  The scenery doesn’t need the altitude’s help to be utterly breathtaking.

The colors, the air, the water–everything about the place is mind-piercingly crisp.  I desperately wanted to just sit there and stare at it for hours, but we had to keep moving.

At the gate to Yosemite National Park, we handed over the $20 entrance fee, which would suffice for both the “to” and “from” legs of our trip, as the receipt is valid for a week.  The Park Service employee was the first to comment on the carrying capacity of the 911, remarking, “Wow, I guess you guys decided to forget the minivan!”  “Bah, who needs it,” was my grinning reply.  She smiled, but that was probably because she was loopy from long hours of working at 9,945′ elevation.

The drive through the park was filled with astounding views, but we stopped only rarely.  After all, we were only just past the halfway point of the trip and we needed to make it to the Lone Oak Lodge in Monterey before too late that night.  One astounding view that we couldn’t help pausing to capture, though, was this one, at Cascade Creek:

Just a magical shot, with smooth, even lighting, taken by my lovely wife.

We exited the park on CA-140 as the sunlight began waning.  The road wound on endlessly through the darkening wilderness.  Just as the natural light relinquished its last foothold on the landscape at around 7pm, we popped out into Mariposa, a surprisingly vibrant little town on the west side of Yosemite.  My cursory overview of it on Google Maps and Earth had not prepared me for just how jumpin’ the place would be on a Thursday evening in October.  Lights were on, shops were open, restaurants were bustling with hungry patrons.  The wife and I both remarked on the state of the place and how nice it would be to stay there sometime, when we had more time to explore the great national park we’d just rushed through.  And we kept on going into the night.  The goal was to arrive at our hotel before 11pm, when the hotel’s front desk would close.

A stop in was in order to get #1 and #2 ready for the night portion of the drive.  We stopped at a CVS in Merced, CA to stretch our legs, dispose of trash, and get the kids some milk, which would hopefully put them to sleep.  We were all getting a little tired but could taste our destination now, just over two hours away.

Through Los Banos, past Hollister, around the hills and through the fields, we hurtled through the noticeably more-humid-than-desert California night.  There was only light traffic and the roads were flat and straight, making for easy driving on this last leg.  We cruised into Monterey just after 9pm and were checked into our hotel by 9:30.  I took the 911 back out on a quick solo trip for a fast food dinner and drugstore supplies, then shut her down for the night just outside the door to our room.  It had been a long, but exciting and eventful day.  We were tired, but eagerly anticipated the morrow.

The Downfall of Honda/Acura

I suppose the title should conclude with “in the US passenger car market.” Who knows how many industries Honda is really into, anyway? To find out, you could start with Honda.com, which lists cars (Honda and Acura are separate), power sports, racing, power equipment, marine, engines, and the HondaJet. I suppose this sort of diversification is why they can afford not to care about appealing to the niche US car enthusiast market. I just hate that their cars used to be great and now are just bloated, underpowered, understyled attempts to please the worst division of the car-buying public: the people who just don’t care about driving.

Honda updated its Civic in 1996 to a body style immortalized by the “The Fast and the Furious” and still seen on the road today. It was inexpensive, it was practical, you never tired of looking at it, the gearbox was a joy, and while there wasn’t much power in stock form, it was absolutely a joy to drive and additional power could be had for cheap in the aftermarket.

In 1997, Honda released a new Prelude that made 195hp and 190 lb-ft of torque from a 2.2L four-cylinder and featured an available Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS) in the high-end SH trim, which was only available with a 5-speed manual. If that’s not catering to the enthusiast, I don’t know what is.

In 1998, Honda restyled the Accord, making it larger than the previous model but managing to keep the fun-to-drive feel. The V6 got the VTEC valve timing and lift technology, upping its output by 30hp over the previous V6 to 200, with 195 lb-ft of torque available at 4700rpm. Mileage was a respectable 21/28mpg with a FOUR-speed torque converter automatic transmission (imagine if it could be retuned for a modern dual-clutch with more gears). Reviews were universally positive, the Accord re-established itself on the Car & Driver 10 Best list, and Honda sold zillions of them to proud, happy customers.

A few years later, armed with momentum and profits from these rapid-fire successes, Honda started kicking out absolutely monumental Acuras. In 2001, the MDX sport-ute made its first appearance,and its trophy case filled rapidly with The North American Truck of the Year Award, the Car & Driver “Best Luxury SUV” award, and the Motor Trend “Sport Utility of the Year” award. In 2002, the RSX arrived, dominated comparison tests, succeeded on the racetrack, and to this day still must be considered a prime choice if you want a fast front-drive two-door coupe/hatchback. The TSX appeared in 2004, and crushed its contemporaries the Volvo S40, Audi A4 1.8T, and Subaru Legacy 2.5GT in a Car & Driver comparison test. Patrick Bedard said of the TSX, “If this were a puppy, it would be wagging its tail from the shoulders on back, so happy, so eager to play. This one topped our fun-to-drive rating and the gotta-have-it factor. No doubts, no reservations. This is a keeper.” It also had, in my opinion, one of the best manual gearboxes ever crafted by mankind–even better than the one in the RSX. Lastly, the halo car for the brand, the NSX (may it and Aryton Senna rest in peace), received a freshening for 2002 wherein it lost its so-80′s pop-up headlights, but kept its first-ever-in-a-production-car super-lightweight all-aluminum monocoque construction and its screaming mid-mounted V6. It was a beautiful time to be a Honda/Acura lover.


   

Then, right there around where the stock price stopped its steady rise in early 2007, the love stopped too. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Honda killed the NSX and RSX, then restyled the TSX to make it unattractive and removed all the puppylike fun. They said the boy-racer 2006 Civic Si would satisfy the disenfranchised RSX customers–it didn’t, since it wasn’t a hatchback, looked futuristic in a stupid way, and the interior was no longer “special and unique” but “completely mundane.” They said they would focus their sports car efforts on a model year 2010 replacement for the NSX, then cancelled the project. They built the hideously ugly Ridgeline, which only escaped ridicule because “it’s a Honda” (the same could be said for the Pilot, especially the second-gen Pilot; yo Honda, practical does not equal desirable–see “Pontiac Aztek”). They killed the S2000. They haven’t made any significant changes to the RL in nearly a decade, the second-gen TL was too edgily designed to be a sales success, the CR-Z is just too slow and heavy to capitalize on the well of goodwill left over from the CRX, and the ZDX…ugh, don’t even get me started on the ZDX.

Honda, get back to doing what you did in the late 90′s and early 2000′s. Make eye-pleasing, simple, light, inexpensive cars that will run their high-revving engines forever. Make cars with great suspension tuning and heavenly manual gearboxes. Make cars that are interesting and inspire the imagination. Make cars that people will want to drive, no just live with. And seriously, give us back our NSX.

 




Jetta Sportwagen TDI – First Prod

This afternoon, after #1 woke up from his nap, his Mommy started asking him what he’d like to do.  I was downstairs or something, so I missed out on exactly how he came up with “go to the Volkswagen store.”  Not that I’m going to complain or anything.We headed down that way, passing a bunch of other dealerships en route.  He showed little interest in those, but when we crested the hill and the “VW” logo became visible on the downslope, he yelled, “THERE’S the Volkswagen store!”  I guess he wasn’t kidding about wanting to go.

We took one lap around the lot, then parked the ol’ family-hauler and got the boys out.  #1 wanted to go straight into the showroom.  As we walked toward it, he noticed an ’02-’04 996 C4S under the service overhang.  “Just like Daddy’s!  But Daddy’s isn’t red,” was his comment.  That’s my boy.  It WAS quite red, to the point of having black wheels with red rims and Porsche-badged center caps.  I bet those were expensive.  The plate was a custom job: GOTMINE.  Yeah, I do too, Boss, but I’m not shouting about it.  Have a little class.  Oh, and I didn’t see you in Monterey for Rennsport Reunion IV–sure you didn’t buy it for the badge?  At least it wasn’t a Tiptronic.

Anyway, we got into the showroom and breezed right past most of the VW fare, though #1 did like the idea of a Routan (primarily, I think, because it was all opened up and looked inviting to climb around in).  I told him we could just get the same thing for less money at the Chrysler store.  He also said the sky-blue-on-ivory Eos was “pretty,” and I chuckled, because the girls that pay the obscene amount they charge for it must really think so too.

The last car we got to in the showroom, due to our counterclockwise circuit, was the red-on-black Sportwagen TDI.  And I gotta say, there’s a lot to love about this car.  The panoramic sunroof with electric shade is very cool and gives the illusion of a lot more interior space.  There really IS a ton of interior space when you fold the rear seats down (almost flat but not quite) and open up all 66.9 cubic feet.  The multi-link rear suspension is certainly an improvement over the standard torsion bar in a Jetta sedan.  And how many wagons can you get with a) a six-speed stick getting 30/42 EPA MPG or b) a six-speed dual-clutch auto getting 30/42 EPA MPG?  Can’t make a bad transmission choice here.  One more thing: 236 lb-ft of torque.  That is all.

Downsides: not many.  I’m not sure if our 70-lb Labrador could sit up straight in the rear cargo area.  She might be stuck lying down for our travels, which is a shame because she loves staring out the rear glass, “watching puppy TV,” we like to say.  The exterior design is definitely understated, with lots of front/rear overhang and not enough of a crease down the length of the thing to keep it from looking blimpy.  The signature diesel clatter is definitely noticeable from outside the car, but why are people supposedly afraid of this?  I don’t think anyone age 30 or below has any memory of a smoky diesel passenger car.  Thus, there is no stigma to battle.  Heck, all I think when I see the letters “T-D-I” is “wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans.”

You gotta love the price.  Fully tricked out with TDI, dual-clutch auto, nav, sunroof, and all the electronic gizmos, you still squeak in under $30k after the destination charge.  Get the six-speed stick and you stay well away from $30k.  In either case, you’re significantly below the average price for a bloated, unnecessary, high-CG, expensive-tire, subpar-gas-mileage crossover, and way more fun to drive.  On paper, this thing is a winner.  Now I just gotta drive one…

(this picture courtesy the R&T “Impressions” at http://www.roadandtrack.com/tests/impressions/2010-volkswagen-jetta-sportwagen-tdi)