Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Winter Trip 2008

If you ever take a trip up north, take an espresso machine. That is the lesson I learned this Christmas.

So my wife and I are making a habit of making an annual winter trip up north to see snow. Well this time we went to visit some friends in Boston and then head up to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Only we never made it to Halifax and I will explain what happened.

One of Alia’s Law school classmates once said: “Whenever I check my grades, I start drinking a couple of hours beforehand, then if my grades are really bad I just keep drinking.” Yes, Law school is that bad sometimes. We started going on these winter trips in an attempt to

keep Alia sane. Law school is an intense experience which usually brings students to the brink of tears during finals, so to help keep my wife in good mental health I find that taking her someplace different helps calm the nerves. This year we looked at a map and thought we would check out Nova Scotia…well that WAS the plan.

First thing though, this is a blog about cars, so let me tell you about my preparations for this winter trip. We originally wanted to take our Mercedes ML320 for this trip; we took it last year to Montreal and it was great. All Wheel Drive, traction control, heated seats, and a high driving position make it ideal for this sort of thing, but sadly it is in the repair shop right now so we had to take the Subaru instead. With All Wheel Drive I knew my WRX would be up for the challenge. A Subaru is as comfortable in the snow as a middle aged woman is at an Enya concert, it's perfect. In order to get my car ready I did the following things to it:

  • Got new tires
  • Added antifreeze
  • Ran fuel antifreeze in the gas take to remove water
  • Replaced the driver’s windshield wiper and rear windshield wiper
  • Waxed the car with a Teflon wax
  • Got cheap clear mats to protect my carpet from snow, salt and ice
  • Treated all windows with RainX
  • Filled the washer fluid with RainX washer fluid
  • Added a Prestone windshield washer antifreeze to washer fluid
  • Treated the inside of all windows with RainX antifog treatment
  • Packed a tool set, jumper cables, etc.
In addition to the things I did to my car, here are the things I brought to survive in the cold:
  • One waterproof ski jacket
  • One wool coat
  • Pair of waterproof pants
  • Pair of Nike ACG boots
  • Pair of Timberland boots
  • Two winter hats
  • Waterproof baseball cap to wear over hats
  • Espresso Machine (Yeah, I brought an Espresso machine, that’s how I roll.)
  • Two electric blankets, one with dual zone control so my wife and I can set it at different temperatures
  • Backup prepaid Cellphone from Tracfone (These things get service anywhere I swear)
  • Lighter and pocket knife (I watched too much Survivor Man with Les Stroud to travel without these two things)

So as you can see I was well prepared for the cold and my trip. I had begun writing this list of things I needed to bring and/or do a couple weeks before our trip. In addition to the things I brought for the cold I also brought a bunch of things for my entertainment. When you are in the cold it becomes difficult to get out, so you need entertainment for the indoors, so I brought the following:

  • Xbox 360
  • Projector
  • Laptop
  • Surge Protector
  • Ethernet Switch and four Ethernet cables
  • Book

Of all the things I have listed above the only things I did not use were the lighter, knife and book. But other than that I used all these items multiple times, including the Espresso Machine thank you very much.

But for all this planning there was one thing I did not plan for, namely the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. This is the State Department’s deceptive name for something that should be called “Make it a Pain in the Butt for Americans to go places in the Name of Border Security and Anti-terrorism Debacle.” Normally I keep both of our passports in my briefcase in the same spot, so no matter where I go I have them, just in case. Well recently I had to switch briefcases because I was using a different laptop and I forgot to move the passports over, so somewhere in New Jersey I remembered I forgot the Passports, thus making Nova Scotia a much less likely destination. We had a backup plan to have our friend Nathan FedEx us our Passports, but we never executed plan “Nato Save our Butts” as I called it.

The first three hours of the drive went without any problems until we hit the traffic nightmare that is northern Virginia. The traffic in Northern Virginia is the worst I have ever seen, it is always slow, no matter what time of day. Here is a list of things I find more enjoyable than driving through Virginia:

  • Running my garbage disposal.
  • Smelling my trash and trying decide whether it is
  • time to take it out.
  • Organizing the vegetables in my freezer.
  • Scrubbing my bathtub.

All of the above listed activities have one thing in common, when you are doing them you are always making progress, unlike driving in Northern Virginia. When driving through that area you need to add at least 90 minutes to your travel time no matter what time of day or year and no matter which direction you’re heading. It really is that bad. Always stop at a rest stop and use the bathroom about forty minutes north of Richmond when heading north, or thirty minutes south of Baltimore when heading south. Otherwise you may find yourself pulling over and watering random bushes in Northern Virginia out of desperation, not that I have any personal experience with that.

When driving North Alia and I like to guess which state we will first see snow in. I guessed Pennsylvania and Alia correctly guessed New Jersey. I can say this about New Jersey, considering how populated the state is and the potential for bad traffic the Turnpike is pretty good all things considered. It allows you to drive straight through the state with relative ease. There are a few decent Rest Stops with gas and a food court, so the trip is manageable. I like to enhance my New Jersey experience by listening to Bon Jovi and Whitesnake while I drive, don’t ask me why but “Here I go Again” and “Living on a Prayer” are the perfect songs to drive to while in New Jersey.

Everything was fine and dandy until Connecticut when it really began to snow pretty heavily late at night. We were outside Meriden when we began to see cars spinning off the road left and right. What was amazing was that we saw multiple 4 x4 trucks spinning off the road. People make the mistake thinking that All Wheel Drive stops you from sliding, but really at highway speeds you can lose traction to all four wheels. Having All Wheel Drive is most useful for getting out of your driveway or driving up a snowy hill, but driving at speed on the highway requires a lot more than just sending power to all four wheels. After seeing one truck stuck teetering on a guard rail we decided to get a hotel for the night and head for Boston in the morning.

Our Hotel, the Residence Inn, had a free warm breakfast. It was nice, there was a fireplace and a large window facing a pretty courtyard where you could watch the snow fall gently on the trees. It was such a serene scene, you could almost hear Winter Wonderland playing in the background. Sleigh bells ring…are you listening? It looked like a true winter wonderland outside. Then someone would open the door and you could hear the true sound of winter: people screaming “Push harder, we’re still stuck!” and “Oh my God is that a Jeep stick on a guard rail!!!?!?!?” I eventually had to go and face the horror myself and dig my own car out.

Here is where all my preparation first paid off.

By treating all the windows with RainX water did not freeze into frost on my windows, it really made a big difference. Also, my car started instantly thanks to gas lines that weren’t frozen because of the stuff I put in the gas tank. My windshield wiper was clear too because I had replaced it with one that has a silicone coating that prevents ice from forming on it. Because there was a fresh coat of wax on the car the snow and ice brushed off with ease. Thanks to the All Wheel Drive I easily backed up and drove to the front of the hotel to load the car where I took this picture.

Once we got onto the highway the snow was falling pretty hard still. The roads were plowed earlier but still treacherous. Here is where being familiar with Rally racing came handy. As a obsessed Subaru owner, I have watched a number of Rally races in the snow, so employing some of their techniques can be quite handy.

First you have to know the capabilities of your car and your driving skills. If you feel the car slipping at all you need to slowdown until you are sure all four tires are maintaining constant traction. Then you need to watch your lines when you are driving. Sometimes it is good to follow a large truck or something that leaves good tracks so you know the snow is melted, but other times you might find a layer of ice under the snow so you will need to drive on freshly fallen snow instead to have more traction. What it all boils down to is being able to know where you have maximum grip with the road. A lesson which I saw many people learn the hard way, including an Audi which I saw slam into the guard rail, I am sure the driver was over confident and thought that Quattro drive system would keep him from sliding, but it didn’t. That car had the most advanced traction control and all wheel drive system in the world, and it still slid into the rails.

After about an hour I began noticing that the Passenger’s windshield wiper began to make noise, I had not replaced that one and ice was forming on it. This was annoying, but since the driver’s side had no ice I was OK. But I saw dozens of people stopped on the side of the road cleaning off their wipers because of the ice problem. We stopped at a Rest Stop and almost everyone was trying to get the ice off of their cars, especially their wipers.

We took our time driving to Boston, averaging around 45 MPH thus making a trip that normally takes two hours more like three hours. Once we got into Boston though it was great that it was snowing, there was little to no traffic at all. Perhaps this is the only blessing of a snow storm in Boston. My friend Colin lives in Somerville, which means you have to park on the street, and in the snow that is a royal pain in the uh...snow? Many cars were stuck in their spots, and the spots that were clear were covered with huge snow piles left by the plows. Colin lives on a small hill, and there was a Ford F150 stuck in the snow trying to get up the hill. If your truck is not four wheel drive it is the worst car to own in the snow because all the power goes to the back wheels but there is no weight on top of the wheels when you have an empty truck bed.

I eventually found a spot and parked for the night. We had tickets to the Knicks/Celtics game so we had to find a way to get to the Garden. Our options were as follows:

1. Drive to the bus stop, stand out in the cold and wait for a bus.

2. Drive downtown and look for parking

3. Call a cab

We opted for number three and it was great. The snow would have made it a serious pain in the butt to look for parking, and I was in no mood to stand in the snow waiting for a bus, with Colin’s eight month pregnant wife, I would have felt horrible making her stand there in the cold. It was snowing pretty hard that night and we needed to get there easily.

Now cab drivers in Boston are probably among the most highly skilled snow drivers in North America. Boston has some truly awful roads, and when you put 24 inches of snow on top of them it makes it almost laughably bad. The overwhelming majority of Taxis are rear wheel drive, so that means they can be terrible in the snow. But the two drivers we had seemed to be quite at home. One of our drivers was a guy from India who had been driving a cab in Boston for 25 years. The way this man handled the snow in his cab you would swear he was Norwegian or something.

In the morning I had to get my car out of the snow again, but I was not nearly as bad off as some other people. Boston was a mess to drive in, and I was battling it just fine but then I noticed something. My steering wheel was shaking like it was having a seizure every time I got any kind of speed. We pulled into the parking lot of Target and I looked at the tires wondering how they could get so out of balance, then I saw the reason. There was tons of ice and snow all in my alloy wheels. I dug it all out by hand and the problem was solved, but I can’t imagine doing this every morning after snow, but I am sure there are plenty of people in Boston who go through this every winter.

We left Boston to venture even further north. We settled on Kennebunkport, Maine figuring if it was good enough for the Bush family to vacation there, it should be adequate for us. I also was craving some lobster, so on Christmas night we got lobster fried rice at a Chinese restaraunt which was just awesome. What I appreciated was how people that lived in that area would still purchase cars that they have no business buying. If you live in New Hampshire you should not be buying a Miata...ever. I guess if it was your summer car, then OK, but I believe cars should be driven, and if you can only drive your Miata with the top down for three or four months a year, well you should consider moving south.

But there is one thing that you should not buy at all when living in heavy snow states...rear wheel drive sports cars. Now they may be some Ferrari owner living in Boston claiming that it is great to own such a car in Beantown. But here is what it looks like when you own a 350z without a garage:

But I appreciate this person, who has accepted that their New England accent prohibits them from pronouncing the letter "r" correctly and got a vanity plate for their BMW aka "Beemer" that reflects the peculiarity of their vernacular:

If you want to drive a high performance car in a snow state, then buy a proper one for the job. May I suggest a Subaru WRX? How about a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo? BMW now makes their coupes in an all wheel drive version, so that would be an excellent choice. But is you must have an Italian exotic then I suggest this:

On the way home we encountered heavy fog, and we saw a number of cars and trucks on the side of the road. Again we hit terrible traffic in Northern Virginia, which was a bummer but by now we just expect that.

So where should we go next year? I hear Switzerland is lovely in the winter.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Drive for a Cure 2008

Every year BMW does the "Drive for the Cure" event. They pay one dollar to breast cancer research for every mile you drive a BMW. Yeah, it's that easy. They give you the keys to a BMW, you drive like an idiot, then they donate money to charity.

BMW gives you a predetermined route, and this year the route went right past my house. It was awesome seeing people with great big smiles driving down the road like they stole the BMW.

So when Alia and I walked into Performance BMW for the Drive for the Cure this year they gave me a free turkey, it was a surreal experience to be honest. Here is how the conversation went:

BMW receptionist: Do you want a free turkey?

My wife: Did you say turkey?

Receptionist: If you drive a BMW, you get a turkey. Would you like a turkey?


So I took my turkey with pride and made sure I got several pictures of my prize alongside a BMW.

But then it got me to thinking, if BMW gives out turkeys, what would other car manufacturers give out? Here is a list I propose for several car companies:

Toyota- one pound of tofu for driving a Prius. Is there any food more perfect for a Prius owner?

GM- A large can of Spam. Spam, like GM cars, are something nobody wants, but somehow they stick around.

Ford- A pound of ground chuck. Ford has barely even tried to be anything other than an all American car company. The Mustang is an unabashedly red meat car, and I love it for it.

Hummer- Free Turduckens, that is a Turkey, with a chicken inside, with a duck inside, oh and there is stuffing between each layer. Yes, it exists and you practically need a Hummer to carry it.

Buick- Salisbury steak. People still actually eat this? People still buy Buicks? Believe it or not some people drive Buicks to the store to buy Salisbury steaks.

Saab- Free chair from Ikea. So it’s not food, but since GM has been trashing the Saab name by re-badging a Trailblazer and calling it the 9-7x and re-badging an Impreza and calling it the 9-2, Saab needs to get back to its Swedish roots. And the Swedes are adept at making furniture.

But enough with all that, the real reason you are reading this is because I drove a BUNCH of BMWs. In fact the only ones I did not drive were the Alpina B7 (I had an appointment to drive it but it was broken) and the M5 (the only car BMW does not put in the Drive for the Cure lineup.)

So here we go:

The biggest surprise: The X6

Imagine if you dated someone who broke all your rules, your “deal breakers” so to speak. You promised you would never date a smoker, someone who ate their peas one at a time, or a Republican (insert Democrat if you are of the GOP persuasion). But now you found yourself on a date with just such a person, a Marlboro smoking, one pea at a time eating Sarah Palin supporter.(Or an Obama-naut, this is a non-partisan blog.) And imagine, to your horror, you actually found yourself attracted to this person. This is how I describe the BMW X6, it breaks all the rules and somehow gets away with it. It’s big, overpriced, less practical than most SUVs and ugly, but I love it...and so did my wife. BMW can do no wrong right now to be honest. BMW is making some seriously good cars right now, they can do no wrong, in fact if BMW pooped it would smell like cherries, they’re that good.

I have no idea what to call the X6. If I were considering buying the X6 but was not quite sure if I wanted one, what car would I drive instead to compare it to? There really is nothing else like it on the road. Some have called it a “crossover” vehicle, but that name means little when so many cars use that title. A Subaru Forester is considered a crossover vehicle, but that car is in no way comparable to the BMW X6. You just can’t put a label on the X6 that fits it properly and here is why:

The X6 feels like an SUV when you open the door and climb into it, it feels like a larger luxury sedan when you drive it, and it feels like a two door coupe when you accelerate and turn like a maniac. What is most remarkable about this car is that it does everything so well. Oh, except look good. Let’s face it, this car is ugly. But that is the ONLY thing it does poorly. Perhaps we can go back to the dating analogy. Let's imagine you were dating someone who you never got tired of talking to, they were an awesome cook, they had tons of money and spent it on you liberally, they had a geat sense of humor and you got along with all their friends and family...but they were butt ugly. Something amzing happen in cases like that, over time you become more fond of them, and next thing you know they no longer look ugly but you find them attractive. That is what happened with me and the X6.

When I first drove it I was jaw droppingly shocked at how good the car was to drive. The driving position was high enough for me to get a good view, but low enough to feel like a comfortable car. It felt more like a sedan when driving, until you pulled up next to a sedan and you realized that you were significantly higher than they were. The X6 has two engine options, a V8 and the BMW six cylinder twin turbo engine. I cannot say enough good things about twin turbo engine, and this engine has more than enough power for this large vehicle so I would not even consider the V8. From a comfort standpoint this car rivaled the 7 Series. Honestly, looking ugly was the only thing I could fault this car for and that is not always a bad thing. Well I guess I could criticize it for only having four seats, which is disappointing for a car so large, at least give me the option of seating five. I know I don’t have four friends to drive around with, but you don’t have to rub it in BMW.

Now if I were going to spend $60,000 on a car would I buy an X6? Mostly likely no I would not. But I would definitely consider buying a used one in three or four years time. Because of the fact that this car is so odd looking I bet a lot of people will not even consider buying one used, so it may be a great bargain in a couple of years.

The Sports Cars and Sedans

At one point during my test drives it began to rain. I was concerned that the event would be stopped. But the organizers were not concerned and here's why: BMW has made it so that only complete idiots can crash them. Here are all the safety features:

Traction control - The computer on a BMW can detect when a tire is slipping and automatically reduce the power going to that tire, it can also apply the brakes to any tire it needs to, or increase the power to other tires when necessary. It is truly remarkable technology when you think about it, but many of us are taking this sort of thing for granted these days. Just jump into an eighties model Ferrari and thrash around for five minutes and you will appreciate how far we have come.

Brake fade resistance- When conditions get wet often your braking distance is increased because when you put your foot on the brake the brakes are unable to create friction because they are wet, but they dry off in a couple seconds and eventually stop the car. In a BMW the brakes automatically dry themselves off when you take your foot off the gas, then when you apply the brakes they have the same stopping power as they have under normal conditions, just brilliant.

Adjustable Power Steering- On BMW you can get steering that automatically adjusts according to your speed. This means that the car is easier to turn under all conditions. If you are in a parking lot you don't have to turn the wheel very far to pull into a parking spot, if you are on the highway and need to make a quick maneuver to avoid something, you are less likely to spin the car out because of over-steer or under-steer.

Lane Departure Warning- Some BMWs have lane departure warning. You know those reflectors in between lanes that when you run over them they shake your steering wheel a little? Well with BMW's lane departure warning system the car can detect where the lanes are and if you start to drift out of your lane it gently shakes the wheel. I was shocked at how well this system worked.

Active Cruise Control- On the 5 Series and 7 Series you can get active cruise control. This system keeps you a safe distance from the car in front of you automatically and can even make the car come to a complete stop if needed.

Variable Brake Lights- Like any car the brake lights come on when you press the brake, but if you press it hard the brake lights appear brighter than normal. If you slam on the brakes in an emergency fashion the brake lights flash and the hazard lights come on for a moment to warn other drivers.

Not all of the above equipment is standard on all BMWs, but much of it is. If all cars had these systems in them how much could we cut down on car accidents? 10%? 20%? I have no idea, but I bet it would be a significant decrease in accidents.

BMW M3 vs. 335

For my next review I am going to compare two cars, the 335 coupe and the M3. Before I do, let me ask you a few questions:

  1. Have you ever heard the words: “Don’t worry, it happens to a lot of guys”?
  2. Do you live near a race track that you can access regularly?
  3. Were you the kind of kid that always had to have the newest toys before anyone else?
  4. Have you have ever hated another woman purely because she was slimmer and prettier than you?
  5. Have you ever uttered the words “size doesn’t matter” in a defensive tone of voice?
  6. Have you ever stuffed your bra or pants?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then get the M3, otherwise you need a 335.

Here is what the M3 does and does oh so well: at 8300 RPMs you get the full power of all 414 horses, which is accompanied by a marvelous roar from the V8 engine, it is truly a magnificent experience. Everything is built perfectly in this car. The gearbox and transmission feel great, the clutch feels like it could handle a Formula 1 engine. The steering system is great, allowing for comfortable driving and sport driving on demand. The only downside of the whole experience I can say is that I found the visibility a little cramped. I guess BMW wanted to make sure any knucklehead stupid enough to flip an M3 would be protected, so the pillars seem a bit large but I am really nit-picking here. The car is perfect in every way.

If you keep all the computers on, the car will prevent you from landing in a ditch 99% of the time. But if you are feeling daring you can turn any number of computer controlled options off and burn some rubber, do a slide, or any other moronic behavior you want. With all the computer options turned off the car is truly a beast and is a challenge to keep on the road if pushed, which is such a great feeling that I dream of driving it again. I've always said I love cars that feel like they are trying to kill you, and I could charge this one with attempted murder.

The biggest problem with the M3 has nothing to do with the car itself, the M3’s biggest problem is the 335 and here is why: To reach the M3’s peak horsepower you have to push the engine to 8300 RPMs, by the time you are ready to get out of second gear you are well on your way to 70 MPH, which is far above the legal speed limit most places. Now compare this to the twin turbo, 300 horsepower engine in the 335. The 335 reaches its peak horsepower at just 1900 RPMs, which means you get to experience the brilliance of the engine almost all the time even during regular driving.

Both cars have brilliant BMW engineering, so they both handle second to none. Sure, the M3 handles better than the 335, but that is like saying Jessica Alba is hotter than Jessica Simpson, or Brad Pitt is hotter than Colin Ferrell. While the statement may be true, sometimes second best is good enough.

As I said in my review of the 135, Dinan makes a chip for the twin turbo engine that boosts its power to 400 hp, for just $2000. That would make the 335 have just 14 fewer horses than the M3, which is astonishing. The 335 is a beast of a car in its own right, and I would bet most people would be more than satisfied with the 335 experience.

Now, as I said at the beginning, if you live next to a track go get the M3. If your daily commute includes time on an autobahn, you need the M3. If for some reason you feel inadequate in some area of your life and think material objects will help, get the M3. But for most of the world I would suggest the 335. I am a religious man, and ultimately I only want to do the most godly thing, and God does not care if I drive an M3, 335 or a 135, so give me a 135 with the added chip thank you and I will never worry about being late to the next worship service.

Sedans -

7- Series - a car that touched me inappropriately

In the 7 Series I experienced "bad touch." In Elementary School I was told that if someone gives you a pat on the back it is OK, but a slow rhythmic rubbing of unmentionable areas is bad touch. The massage seat on the BMW 7 Series gave me the latter. It was odd at first, you think: "Did this seat just rub me where I think it did?" Then when the rollers move again you are sure, indeed the bottom seat rubs you in the most intimate of places. So the next time you are at a stop light and see the person in the 7 Series next to you smiling in a curious way, know that they are probably being touched in private ways by their car seat.

Now, this car is BMWs flagship if you will. If you are a CEO looking for a car to carry fellow execs around, then the 7 Series is the car for you. It is large, so you don't feel like you are driving a sports car, but the car has all of BMW's bells and whistles I mentioned earlier so you can drive like you are a getaway car driver trying to elude the police and worry about ever losing control. (For perhaps one of the best getaway sequences, see this clip from the original Transporter movie, he was driving the old 7 Series in this clip)

The V12 engine is insane to be honest. You really do not need that many cylinders, BMW makes plenty of other engines that are smaller but would be more than adequate for this car, but almost every European luxury car maker has a huge engine in their largest sedan, so I guess it is tradition.

Several years ago BMW brought an American in to design its cars, a man named Chris Bangle. Bangle is to car design what Van Gogh was to Impressionist art. Van Gogh was not very well received by critics during his lifetime, but yet he has come to be known for defining an era of art. One modern designer said that the Z4 looked like it was designed with a machete, and I agree. But it was the 7 Series that made most people question Bangle's design. The trunk of the 2002 7 Series was truly awful, but it has been toned down recently. Now the 7 Series is a decently attractive car, but by no means can it compete with the flowing lines of a Jaguar or Rolls.

The 7 Series is a nice place to be, especially if you spend large amounts of time in your car stuck in traffic there is hardly any better place to be. The seats are both heated and air conditioned, so you are comfortable in any climate. When traveling on road trips I compare the hotels I stay at to the interior of my car. If the hotel is nicer than my car, then it was a good choice. (I usually take my ML320 for long trips, so that is the standard.) Well you really would have to stay in at least 4 star hotels to even come close to the comfort level achieved in the 7 Series. If you gave me the choice between a cheap roadside motel and a 7 series for the night I would almost always choose the 7 Series. In a cheap motel if you have someone massage you in your nether regions you will have to drive to some street corner to find a "friend," it will cost you at least $50 and you would then have to get tested for an STD afterwards. But in the BMW you can sleep soundly in the comfort of your car being without any worries of the Police busting you for the act.

The 760Li I drove was well over $100,000 which if I'm honest is an insane amount of money to spend on a car which is a depreciable asset. But if you have that kind of money to drop on a car, I guess you are not bothered much by depreciation. My wife and I have a pact not to spend that much on a car unless we can sell it for a profit or only a small loss. This is possible sometimes when luxury brands make cars with limited production numbers and you are lucky enough to get your hands on one, but I don't think the 760Li qualifies.

I was trying to think of what car I recently drove that I could compare the 7 Series to, laughably the only car I could think of was the Lincoln town car. Let me list the similarities:

  1. Both have four wheels
  2. I have driven both
Seriously, comparing a $100,000 BMW to a Lincoln is like comparing a Steak from Outback to a proper Prime Rib at a Five Star Restaruant. Sure an Outback steak is good, but when is the last time you had a properly cooked Prime Rib? (For the record never get beef cooked anything more than medium rare, unless you are at a place with suspect cleanliness.)

If you have the money and want one of the best cars money can buy, go right ahead and buy one. I especially encourage anyone who spends a good amount of time in their car to buy one. It would be hard for me to authoritatively say that the BMW is much better than its Mercedes counterpart without having one for a week to test.

535- The Best Sedan Period

The 535 is the perfect sedan. It is not so small that it feels cramped with four adults in it, it is not so large that you need a parking spot the size of Belgium to parrallel park it. The 535 has the twin turbo V6, which is perfect balance of power and fuel economy for a car this its size. In the 1 Series that engine feels insane, in the 3 it is scary quick, but in the 5 it is perfect. After driving all the other models I felt like Goldie Locks when I got into the 535. The M3 was too fast, the 760 was too big, but the was just right.

To be honest there is nothing else to say about the 535, it is everthing a BMW should be. But if I am to liken cars to ice cream, this is how the BMW lineup would look:

M3- Two scoops of Esspresso Ice cream
7 Series- large bowl of Gelatto
Z4- chocolate cone with sprinkles
535- Vanilla cone

While there is nothing wrong with Vanilla, and in fact sometimes you are in the mood for it, there are other times you want more. So then you can get an M5, which is a Vanilla cone...with caffeinated sprinkles.


Now let me just say a word about the BMW convertibles, I drove several of them on two different days, and the temperature was about 43 degrees. The BMW climate control has a setting for top down driving, and with heated seats it was quite comfortable even in the cold. So really the only time you would have to put the top up is when there is any kind of precipitation. I would be interested to see how cold you could comfortably drive, perhaps it is uncomfortable when it gets below freezing, but I live below the Mason-Dixon line so I wouldn't know.

BMW makes convertible versions of their 3 Series and 6 Series cars, as well as the Z4. Usually when you cut the roof off of a car and make it a convertible you sacrifice stability for the chance to let the wind blow in your hair. But BMW has made every effort to make the convertibles just as solid as the hard tops, and it worked. Again, you might notice the difference if you take your car to the track, but I doubt the average driver would notice a difference when driving around town getting groceries.

I decided after driving the Z4 two things:

1. Two seater convertibles are for women, or at least not for 6'5" men like me.

2. Everyone looks hotter in a convertible.

I enjoy the Z4, but everytime I see a woman get into one, I just come to the realization that women just look so much better in it than I do. That said, the 6 Series convertibles are decidely masculine cars, so if I wanted a BMW drop top that made me look more like a CEO and less like a teen pop star, that is the way I would go.

Now you may have noticed that I have made no real mention of the X3 and X5, that is because, as nice as those cars are, I just don't think they standout in the luxury SUV line. There is stiff competition there. The Land Rover looks cooler, the Volvo is more practical, the Mercedes is better off road. (Not that I know that because I took a BMW X5 loaner off roading when I had me series in the shop of anything like that, but next time you are at the BMW dealer buying a used X5, ask if it was a loaner and if it was stay away from it.) But the X5 and X3 are fine cars, just not worth writing about until they have a properly badged M version.

So there you have it, my take on BMW after this year's Drive for the Cure. Now let's see if they continue this event next year, or will this go the way of Subaru Rally racing and become the victim of a slow economy?

Friday, December 19, 2008

RIP Subaru Rally Team

I was heart broken to hear that Subaru has officially announced the end of its World Rally team. This marks the death of a legend, the end of an era. The World Rally Championship was an amazing sight, cars driving at insane speeds not on pavement, but on gravel, snow and ice. The lessons learned from the WRC Championship helped Subaru design some of the best handling cars in the world, with All Wheel Drive that keeps you car glued to the road. The technology developed by the Rally team was amazing, and helped create things like a DCCD. It is truly a shame that Subaru decided to pull the Rally team. They cited the economic downturn as the reason, and I have to say that of all the casualties thus far, this is by far the biggest loss I feel. 

So Alia and I decided to go on a farewell Subaru World Rally Team (SWRT) winter road trip. We are driving up to Nova Scotia from North Carolina, with a stop in Boston. We'll take pictures and video of our trip and post it online soon.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Car Pr0n

I am a modest guy in general. I change the channel when I see beer ads featurng half naked women. I avert my eyes in the movie theatre when there is gratutious nudity on the screen. I have never purchased a Playboy magazine or anything like that. I never buy a car magazine with bikini-clad women in it because I think that is just stupid. I mean, take the picture I posted here of a woman in a rather modest bathing suit draped over a car. I don't need the woman, just show me the car. But wait, is that a cow print painted Miata? Ewww, maybe I will make an exception for this, I think I would rather look at the woman.

I know what you're thinking: "Gee Chris, you sound gay to me." Well no, it's not that I am not attracted to women, it's quite the opposite actually. I love women, I think they're great. But for a me, staring at half naked or naked women all the time is like asking an alcoholic to watch beer commercials, it is a road I do not want to go down. We all have animal sides to our nature, I just want to keep mine under control. There are plenty of good images out there that I want to fill my mind with, I don't need to fill it with tasteless images of women, or men for that matter. I bet if I was gay I would probably avoid the same types of images of men anyway, that is just how I am.

But when it comes to design and engineering I love to stare at a good car and strip it down with my eyes and have naughty thoughts like: "I wonder if that car puts out............more than 300 horsepower." Or perhaps: "I bet that car could suck............enough air to support 20 lbs of turbo boost." I once almost spun my car into a ditch because I was straining to look at a Porsche 911 slantnose.

So I decided to make a list of some of the most seductive cars ever made. Here it goes:

Aston Martin DB5-

Sean Connery, James Bond, all sexy. Seriously, I do not know if it gets sexier than an Aston Martin DB5. If a minivan says "I've given up trying to be sexy" a DB5 says "I age like fine wine." I'll have my Aston in silver...shaken, not stirred. They actually brought the DB5 back to the Bond series in Goldeneye, fitting since it appeared first in Connery's Goldfinger. You can view the DB5 in action in the clip below.

BMW 507-

The greatest BMW you never heard of, the 507. It was made in the late fifties and was a class act. BMW tried to emulate the 507 with the Z3, Z4 and Z8. But nothing beats the original. Just look at it, simply gorgeous. When I look at it I don't imagine sitting in those seats so much as I imagine those seats having their wicked way with me as the wind runs its fingers through my hair and the vibration from the exhaust digs its fingernails into my back. This car is so cute it would make John McCain look like Colin Farrel.

Ferrari 250-

Bueller...Bueller...Bueller. Yes that iconic car from Ferris Bueller is perhaps the sexiest car of all time. There were a number of variations of the 250, the California GT was the one they chose for the movie, but all of them were gorgeous. Ironically in the movie it was only a replica of the original Ferrari, but it still got the job done because sometimes stuffing your pants or padding your bra actually works. I found a compilation of some of the Ferrari scenes on youtube. The first scene, where they first look at the car, is perhaps one of the greatest scenes in automotive movie history, oh yeah...beautiful, so beautiful.

1977 Corvette-

Once upon a time American car companies could actually make decent looking cars. Sadly a gorgeous American made car is far too rare an occrence these days. This black late seventies Corvette is proof that Americans can make pretty cars. But be careful, if you drive this car do not grow a mustache or wear a silk shirt unbuttoned with a gold chain around your neck; otherwise someone might ask you odd questions about "the swinging lifestyle" or something.

Porsche 356-

Steve McQueen's love interest in Bullitt drove one, my wife wants one... so do I. But what makes the Porsche 356 so sexy? Two words: Top Gun. Before Tom Cruise went off the deep end he was as cool as the other side of the pillow in the eighties. In the movie Top Gun Kelly McGillis drove a Porsche 356. She chased him down on his motorcycle in it and then made out with him, how awesome is that? Want to know what is even better? The video of the song "Take my breath away" by Berlin shows the scene where the Porsche is flying through traffic. Man, I love the eighties. Check out the video, the Porsche is at about 2:30

Lamborghini Miura-

Before Lamborghini became famous for its scissor style doors they made the Miura. Legend has it that Ferruccio Lamborghini was dissatisfied with the clutch of his Ferrari 250gt and went to the factory to complain to Enzo Ferrari about it. Apparently Lamborghini was so upset at the way he was treated by Ferrari, he decided to start a car company to compete with Ferrari. The Miura is the first Lamborghini model that pushed the enevelope as far as design goes. The doors were designed to look like the horns of a bull when they were open.


Have you ever met someone and not really realize they are incredibly attractive at first? Maybe they do not flaunt their looks, maybe they even play it down on purspose. But once you get to know this person you find them incredibly attractive. They often are a great combination of looks, character and intellect. Well that describes the BMW M5. In particular I find the last model the most alluring. At first sight you have no idea what the car really is. The fact is that the E39 5 series of BMWs is perhaps the best designed midsize sedan of all time. Here is the good news: you can get a high mileage M5 for around $22k, thus making it one of the most attainable cars in ths list.

Toyota Supra-

The only Japanese car I am going to put on this list, the Supra was a true great. They are currently holding their value like few cars can. You can easily spend $30k to $40k on a nice Supra. The sport roof was the best though, the benefits of a convertible without the loss of structural strength. The sexiest thing about this car was the ability of the engine to take on huge turbos. You know what they say about guys with big turbos right?...They have big boost.

This car was made famous in the movie The Fast and the Furious.

There were so many cars I could have put on this list. But I settled for the ones here. I would love to hear what cars you think are too hot for TV. Feel free to leave a comment!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ford Mustang - Down the only road I've ever known

In the past three years I have travelled a lot and thus rented a LOT of cars. Here is a list of the ones I can recall: 

Saturn Aura 
Chevy Colbalt 
Dodge Frontier 
Lincoln TownCar 
Ford Focus 
Ford Edge 
Ford Tarus 
Ford Mondeo 
Pontiac Gran 
PrixPontiac G6

To be honest, most of these cars are forgettable, but a couple of weeks ago I rented a car worth talking about: a Ford Mustang.

Somehow I had not driven a Mustang since they changed it in 2005, so I was ecstatic to finally get my hands on one. I got the keys from the counter at Hertz and I was practically skipping to the car I was so excited. The first thing I was going to do was put it on a classic Rock and Roll station and turn it up real loud. I was looking down the row searching for the spot that was designated for me, D17 is where my chariot of American muscle awaited me. And then I saw it. It was a gorgeous jet black V8 Mustang GT. It had nice retro looking mag-style wheels with tan leather interior. It had the retro looking fog lights in the front, a nod to the classic Mustangs of the past. It had a tan leather interior just begging you to rest your back on while you mashed the gas pedal. I admit… I was shocked at how good it looked. There was only one problem, this black beauty was in spot D19, my Mustang was in D17.

The sound my wife made when she saw our Mustang is the same sound one makes when a friend suggests that you date someone you find completely unattractive. And I don’t mean unattractive like “they’re not my type.” I mean unattractive like “if they were the last person on earth and the fate of humanity hinged on our mating, I don’t think I could control the vomiting long enough to close the deal.” The Mustang was yellow-orange, no spoiler, with a black cloth interior that had the word “Mustang” written all over it repeatedly. The color was so ugly I wondered if it was specifically made for Hertz, because surely a color that hideous could only be justified if it was exclusive. But no, you can order your Mustang with that color directly from Ford. If I had driven the car past the taxi cab stand surely someone would have tried to hail me down and ask for a ride to the Holiday Inn Express.

Two amazing things happened one day at Ford. The first is that at a meeting somewhere, someone said: "Hey, you know what would be cool? How about a Ford Mustang that is school bus yellow, with a hint of orange added?" Then someone replied: "That's a good idea. Let's call it: 'Grabber Orange,' it will be great." Both of those people should be slapped, nay kicked for such idiocy. Yes, you could say it is only my opinion that the color "Grabber Orange" is ugly, but it is also a fact. Show me someone who actually likes the color Grabber Orange and I will show you someone I will never eat dinner with. My wife and mother refused to arrive at a wedding we were attending in this car, and my mother is one of the most forgiving people in the world when it comes to this sort of thing. 

When I stopped at a stop sign at the airport I decided to give the engine a little test. I put my foot down, maybe 75% throttle, the engine made a great noise, and the tires protested by squealing; but the car did not accelerate much. Despite having a four litre V6 this car is by no means fast. 0-60 in 7.8 seconds, that is hardly impressive. If I’m honest, that kind of performance is bafflingly bad. A V6 Hyundai Sonata is faster 0-60, which is just wrong. Surely Ford could have engineered more power out of this engine, but for some reason they didn’t. What a shame. Ford has a large stake in Mazda, and the Mazda 6 has an available 3.7 litre V6 which puts out 60 more horsepower. Couldn't the guys at Ford send an e-mail to their colleagues at Mazda and say: "Hey, how did you guys squeeze 272 bhp out of that Mazda 6?" 

Combine this woefully under-performing engine with a rear live axle and you have a car that is borderline terrible to drive. (If you don't know what a rear live axle is, just read my review of the Acura I did a few months back.) Its only saving grace is the fact that it is rear wheel drive, and any gear head can appreciate the ability to throw the rear end out when you push the car hard.

Hertz installed a Sirius satellite radio, so eventually I did find my classic Rock station. White Snake is perfect for a car like this. The stereo was adequate enough, but nothing special. The plastics in the car were just awful to be honest. I often liken the interior of my Mercedes to the waiting room of a four star hotel, it is a nice place to be. The interior of this bottom of the line Mustang I would liken to the dining room in a fast food restaurant, it serves its purpose, but you are glad when you are out of there.

Despite all these shortcomings however, something strange happened. I actually found myself liking the car. I had trouble accepting this, but there was something about it. I would say that there was a certain je na sais quois about the car, but describing a Mustang with French is a criminal act in the state of Texas, so no French here. Although the plastics were terrible in the car, the lines in the interior were just right to evoke a certain emotion. The numbers on the dials were in a font that reminded me of the great muscle cars of the past, so just the act of watching your speed evoked sentimental feelings.

My wife and I had to return the car to the airport in the early morning hours on a Sunday. The roads were empty and I was looking forward to driving around without any traffic to contend with. As I was driving in the neighborhood around my mother’s house I noticed that there was sprinkler leaking onto the road, thus getting my tires all wet. About 50 feet past the water was a stop sign, I casually hit the brakes and the car locked up (no ABS). Then once I hit the gas the car slid all over the place as if it were on ice making all kinds of noise. I had heard that the tires that came stock on the Mustang were terrible, but I can tell you first hand if you buy one just chuck the tires out. Even a bottom of the line set of Kumho tires would fare better than what is on the Mustang.

The bottom of the line Mustang may be a terrible car in some respects, but at $20k the car is available to the masses, which is a good thing for Ford considering how difficult it is for American car companies to sell anything these days. Making it possible for anyone to enjoy the car was a brilliant move by Ford. Luckily there are trim levels and aftermarket tuners that fix all these problems by adding such as larger tires, superchargers and limited slip differentials. A Roush stage 2 or 3 Mustang is an awesome piece of engineering. The GT500 is an instant classic, so you can't go wrong with one of those. 

My wife and I both agree, if we were to get a Mustang it would have to be the Bullitt version, because we can think of no other way to enjoy American Muscle more than pretending we are Steve McQueen in the greatest car chase on film. We watched the movie Bullitt twice since renting the Mustang, how cool is that?

(For the record, the movie Bullitt featured this car chase I posted here. What made is spectacular is the fact that it was done without any CGI and Steve McQueen himself drove the Mustang, not some stunt driver. McQueen was the real deal.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fuel Efficient Office

A VP at my company wrote me an e-mail asked:

"OK, what car would you choose that gets at least 25mpg in the city, is not a hybrid or diesel, and you needed to take clients out to lunch/dinner in it? So it would have to have some class."

So the first place I went to was Forbes, they make some great lists, and luckily they had a list of the Top 10 Most Fuel Efficient Luxury Cars so I thought that was a good place to start. There were two problems with this list though. 

1) None of the cars get 25mpg
2) Half of the cars were not luxury cars. Let's look at the list:

  • Acura RL
  • Audi A8 
  • AudiTT 
  • BMW 3 Series 
  • Land Rover LR2 
  • Lincoln Navigator 
  • Lincoln Mark LT 
  • Subaru Tribeca 
  • Subaru Impreza 
  • Volvo XC70 
First of all what in the world is a Subaru Impreza doing on this list? (Or the Tribeca for that matter.) The Impreza is a fine car, heck I own one, but a luxury car? By no means is the Impreza a luxury car. Calling the Impreza a luxury car is like calling BBQ brisket gourmet food. I love beef brisket, but if I am at a five star restaurant I'll have the Trout à la Crème thank you. 

Here is an easy way to identify a luxury car: if you go to a nice restaurant is it worth giving it to the valet? When I go to a place with a valet I take my Mercedes, the Subaru stays at home. The Audi TT, while luxurious, really is a sports car. The Lincoln Mark LT is a truck, a nice faux-wood and leather truck, but putting a top hat on a cowboy does not make an aristocrat. The Volvo XC70 is a nice car, but Volvos are for over-educated and underpaid intellectuals, and when you work for a non-profit you can't use a valet. 

But even when we eliminate all these cars from the list we still run into the problem that none of them achieve 25mpg, so we are going to have to look elsewhere. So what does get 25mpg in the city? A Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra and Honda Fit all get that kind of mileage but none of them can be described as luxury cars. Four cylinder Camrys and Accords are only getting 21mpg. After searching around the website I came to the conclusion that no new non-hybrid/diesel luxury car gets 25mpg in the city, not one. So it is time to look at older cars to see if we can find some gems. 

If we are willing to settle for 24mpg we can actually find some cars worth mentioning:

Infiniti G20- 

Now in the interest of full disclosure I admit my mother drives this car. But I picked it out for her for a reason, it is luxurious (read: leather intertior, climate control, Bose stereo) it has a legendary engine, Nissan's accomplished SR20DE, the car was reasonably priced new, and it makes an especially good deal used. Although the window sticker claimed 24 mpg in the city, when I drive it I get closer to 21mpg, but if you drive like my mother you can get closer to 24mpg. On the highway though it is easy to get 27mpg.

Acura RSX-

Now the RSX is more of a compact sports car than a luxury car, but it does
actaully manange 25mpg in the city, and no not the Type-S version sorry. But an RSX is not 
a bad car, in fact I rather like them. They are small though, and if you have to give three people a ride someplace you better hope the at least one of them is a horse jockey.

After these two cars it becomes too difficult to get near the magic 25mpg number, which is sad really. What makes it sad though is that there are plenty of cars made by all the major auto manufacturers that meet the criteria, but none of these cars are sold in America. Here are a few examples:

Cadillac BLS-

Believe it or not, Cadillac makes a sedan with a 2.0 litre low-output turbo engine in Sweden, and sells it as the Cadillac BLS in Europe. 
It shares a lot of parts with the Saab 9-3 and 9-5. There are rumors that in 2010 this car will be made available in the US, and possibly a plant made in Ohio. Why in the world did it take so long to undertstand that Americans would want a car like this? I just hope we don't get stuck with only the V6 version of this car.

BMW 318 ES-

This may be hard to imagine, but there is a BMW that gets over 30mpg in the city. That's right, it gets 30 miles per gallon and it is a BMW. I'll be honest, if we had this car in the 
US I would probably own one as a daily driver. I can think of no other car that would be a better compliment to my tricked out WRX. This car is comfortable, affordable and fuel efficient. It is a crime we don't have these here in the US.

Mercedes C180-

Tell me again why they do not sell this car in the US market? (We only get V6 and up versions.)I heard it is because Americans want more power in their cars. I actually think that argument is bunk. I think they use the power argument because Americans are among the fattest people in the world on average, and we need more power to haul our large behinds around. But a bottom of the line four cylinder Mercedes would be perfect for the job, it gets 25 mpg in the city and is classy. In fact, I wish rental car companies would buy cars like this, instead of the terrible cars I get each time I go to a rental car counter. 

Ford Mondeo-

In the European market the Ford
Mondeo plays the same role as the Taurus here in the US. But in Europe there are far more choices when it comes to engine size. Right now the most fuel efficient Ford Taurus in the US is the V6 FWD version, which manages just under 20 mpg. If Ford made a four cylinder Taurus that got close to 30 mpg in the city how well do you think that would sell in an age of $4 a gallon gas? These car companies claim that all the focus group research they do show that Americans want fast cars with power. As Henry Ford once famously said: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse." Besides, who needs a focus group to tell you that we want cars that are faster AND more fuel efficient? That's what the customer wants, every year, it's not rocket science. 

The Ford Mondeo has a number of four cylinder models to choose from, it looks great and is relatively cheap. With leather interior it is a classy car and easy to ride in. Sure, a four cylinder Mondeo is not nearly as quick and powerful as the V6 Taurus, but it gets 30-40% better gas mileage than the Taurus, and I am willing to bet a lot of people will choose fuel economy over performance for years to come. Besides, the average person doing their daily commute to work is not going to notice the speed difference. In bumper to bumper, stop and go traffic a Ford Mondeo will get to its destination at the same time as a Ferrari. 

There are a number of other cars that deserve an honorable mention: 

Vauxhall Vectra- A car made by GM in Europe that competes with the Mondeo. Not a great car, but if you own GM stock and want to support their product, a fully loaded Vectra with a small engine is not too bad.
Honda Accord- A 2.0 litre Accord is sold in Europe. Really Honda? You don't think Americans would buy that? A more fuel efficient Accord, call me crazy, but I think America needs this car.
Mercedes 200E- An E-Class with a four cylinder engine. What's not to like?

So there you go, fuel efficent offices on wheels. Isn't it a shame we don't have more options here in the US. Well for now I am going to haul my oversized American butt around in my Mercedes ML320, because that is the American thing to do.