Monday, October 20, 2014

Editorial: Are Manuals Really Dead?

Image courtesy of Fanpop
"The manual transmission is dead." That is what everyone keeps saying, and they certainly have good reason. People used to buy manual transmissions because they offered an advantage in fuel economy and vehicular control. With the advancement in automatic transmissions though, including CVTs and DCTs, those advantages no longer exist. The argument now is, "why have three pedals and row your own gears when the car can do it for you? You want control over your own gears? Just slap it into 'sport' mode and change gears yourself with paddles!"

Yes, manual transmission take rate has been steadily falling every year. In the last few years, that percentage has been somewhere in the low teens. Sure, there are certain "enthusiast" models that only come with a manual transmission, such as the Honda Civic Si, the Subaru WRX STi, and the Ford Focus ST and Fiesta ST. Purchase rates for these types of vehicles is not exactly low, but they simply cannot hold a candle to their more pedestrian, automatic equipped cousins in terms of sales numbers. With manufacturers like Porsche, who used to exclusively build their vehicles with manual transmissions, now offering less and less manual choices, it would seem the final nail in the coffin for manual transmissions is coming sooner and sooner.

Image courtesy of Motor Trend
Despite the grim outlook for manual transmissions, there has been encouraging news in the last few months, keeping the Grim Reaper and his bony mitts off our manual gearboxes. The new C7 Corvette has a 35% manual take rate. This may seem low compared to the automatic version, but it is still much higher than other cars in the same class. For more encouraging news, we look at the recently introduced Dodge Challenger Hellcat, with its glorious 707bhp supercharged V8. The Hellcat is offered with both a six-speed manual and an eight-speed automatic. Reports have come in showing that the six-speed manual is outselling the automatic by a ratio of 55 to 45. Finally, rumor also has it that BMW will be introducing the new M2 coupe with only a manual transmission. For enthusiasts, this is big news as it has been an incredibly long time since BMW has introduced an enthusiast model that comes with only a manual transmission.

Image courtesy of Motor Trend
The impending death of the manual transmission has been a topic that has, admittedly, been beaten to death. However, with news coming from the automotive world that manufacturers are actually starting to pay attention to us three-pedal guys again, it could very well mean manuals still have a good few decades left. Does it mean the next generation will have manual transmissions to drive? Only time will tell. What I can be sure of though, is that when I have kids, you can be damn sure I will teach them to drive in a manual, even if it kills me.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Announcement: We say good-bye to one long-term tester and hello to another

It has been a crazy weekend as a fast decision late on Friday night led to the departure of one of our long-term cars from our fleet and the arrival of a brand new one. Both of these will see updates in the coming months, a final wrap-up for the departing car and an introduction to our new long-term car. For now, all we will say is that this is a totally new car ownership experience and we are excited to share our thoughts with everyone as we learn to adapt to a very different lifestyle. Also, it is not an Acura. Stay tuned to learn more.

In the meantime, read more about our existing long-term fleet by visiting the "Our Garage" section of this site.

Friday, October 10, 2014

News: Tesla announces AWD Model S and Autopilot features

Every Tesla fan was likely glued to the web last night to find out about the latest from the electric auto maker and Elon Musk did not disappoint. The announcement of a dual motor all-wheel-drive version of the Model S corroborates the various rumors that had been swirling around all week. However, unlike the usual AWD systems, which saddle cars with extra weight and complexity, contributing to losses in performance and efficiency, the dual motor AWD system in the Model S seems to do exactly the opposite, actually improving efficiency and increasing the cars overall range while adding nearly 50% more horsepower and dropping the 0-60 mph time by over a full second in the now 691-hp P85D trim. Judging from the various videos floating around online of first impressions, this thing is an absolute monster.

On top of all this Tesla has also announced that starting from two weeks ago, every Model S built has the hardware installed for its new Autopilot features, which will be a part of the Technology Package going forward. This adds several cameras, sensors, and systems to allow the Model S to virtually drive itself. The car is able to operate the throttle, brakes, and steering to essentially drive itself, doing everything from managing your cruising speed by reading the speed limit signs to executing a lane change upon command, all without the driver touching the steering wheel or pedals. While the hardware has been included in recent production cars, the software to power this impressive feat of automotive engineering is still being finalized and will be released as a part of an over the air update. Unfortunately, there is no way to retrofit the hardware to older Model S cars.

As huge fans of the Model S, it is hard not to applaud Tesla for adding such admirable improvements to their cars, especially in an ongoing manner. The addition of such features not only toes the line on what is legally allowed at the moment for autonomous vehicles, but also shows that as a company, Tesla is committed to continued innovation. We look forward to taking a test drive of a car equipped with these new features so that we can share further impressions.

More details linked after the jump.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

News: Bike lanes do not slow down car traffic

Many drivers have the misconception that anything that removes space from their precious roads is an impediment to their forward progress. The loss of lanes to parking is already an affront to their vision of free-slowing traffic, so one can only imagine that the loss of a traffic lane, or even the reduction in the size of a traffic lane, in order to install a bike lane would be a truly serious offense in their eyes. The idea that slow moving traffic would somehow have no impact on the free flow of traffic seems antithetical to traditional logic.

And yet, a recent study of bike lanes in New York City, one of the most traffic snarled metropolises in the US shows precisely that. The installation of bike lanes, particularly those protected bike lanes that completely separate car traffic from bike traffic, have not only not slowed down traffic, but in some cases, have actually improved traffic flow. On top of that, not only has traffic improved, but cyclist injuries, pedestrian injuries, and traffic incidents have decreased in significant numbers.

If in a massively traffic snarled city such as NYC, protected bike lanes are able to have such a tremendous impact, imagine what adding these to other major cities, such as Los Angeles, could do to improve driving conditions and reduce congestion. NYC has the obvious advantage of greater population density, but even adding them to the immediate suburbs surrounding the city of Los Angeles would make a tremendous difference in the near term and combined with greater investment in public transit options, could make dramatic improvements in the long term. Hopefully more studies will continue to reveal that increasing bike traffic in major cities is a great way to ease car congestion and, perhaps, reduce pollution as time goes on.

Link to the full study after the jump.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Editorial: Driving as therapy

To some, driving is a chore. The slog every day of getting up in the morning to join the the lemmings on the road, inching along at a snails pace to arrive and put in a a full day of work, only to be faced with the same terrible conditions on the drive home. For even the most dedicated of gear heads, such drudgery is just utterly painful. Yet, there are some of us who see driving as an opportunity so focus our conscious minds on a mechanical task that allows the subconscious mind to wander freely, handling the work of solving some of the great challenges in our lives, those great paradoxes that have been plaguing us.

For me personally, ever since I started driving, it has become my go-to activity to clear my mind. Many job decisions, major purchases, and even serious life-altering conclusions have been arrived at following a long drive. Working the clutch and shifter, focusing my mind on finding that next apex, sensing the tire adhesion and road conditions, all have a surprisingly de-cluttering effect on my subconscious, allowing it to piece together thoughts that might otherwise have been obfuscated by the millions of things rattling around in my brain at any one time. The driving clears my head long enough to allow the related thoughts to gel into something coherent.

In recent weeks, things have been a bit crazy around here. Lots of things have cropped up and our lives have developed a level of complexity that was, to say the least, unexpected. Finding the time to figure stuff out has been challenging, but, luckily, the one thing California is not short on is driving. In the last two months, since our departure from Boston, I have driven more miles that I have in nearly the past year and a half. Not every one of those miles was spent in contemplation, but when I needed the time to clear my head, the opportunity has been there. For me, regardless of if it is a work matter, a personal matter, or a financial matter, spending the time on the road, whether behind the wheel or in the saddle is a better form of therapy than doing just about anything else.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Road Trip: Conclusion (Cross Country Road Trip Ep. 7)

With most of the country behind them, our intrepid travelers power through the home stretch, passing through Lake Las Vegas as a final stop before completing the final leg to Southern California. Missed their last adventure? Click here to read all about it.

The excitement of the trip rose to a crescendo with our stay in Moab. The reality that the trip was coming to an end finally hit home as we packed up the car the following morning and made our way to the final stop. Along the way, we ran into a little trouble with the Thule bike rack, resulting in the need to do a little roadside repair and a whole lot of anxiety about whether or not we would manage to make it back to Southern California with both bikes intact. I will save the gory details for our full review of the Thule rack, but to put it mildly, I would seriously think twice before purchasing another Thule product because of this experience, especially with the subsequent terrible customer service.

The trip encompassed 18 days and kept us behind the wheel for some 4,643 miles through 21 different states. We actually stopped and properly visited locations in 17 different cities and saw nearly two dozen friends and a dozen family. The trip required 10 fuel stops and the TSX turned in great fuel economy at around 27.16 mpg, frequently going over 500 miles between fuel stops, despite the regular stints at 75 mph on the interstates. We were fortunate enough not to experience any major problems along the way and aside from running out of fuel in Nashville, we encountered no problems at all.

The TSX was an impeccable travel companion. Despite carrying all of our luggage and the bikes, it drove well no matter what we threw at it. Even as the air thinned climbing up to the heights of Denver and beyond, while the performance suffered as is expected of naturally aspirated engines, the balanced chassis, clean handling, and excellent manual transmission make the TSX a joy to drive. However, it is not entirely without its faults. The cabin noise, for instance, can reach slightly irritating levels, especially on surfaces that were anything but perfectly smooth. Also, the dated electronics, especially for a car built in 2012, meant we were supplementing the in-car systems with a portable GPS unit and our cellphones. An inconvenience that Acura thought drivers of manual transmissions were okay with as the 2012 model year TSX was only offered in a single trim with the excellent 6-speed manual.

All told, this trip was an amazing opportunity to see parts of the country we might never have otherwise spent much time in. Having grown up on the west coast and spent my last decade on the east coast, the middle of the country has largely been flyover territory. This trip changed that and for me personally illuminated some amazing places that I would like to return to in the future. This trip was also an opportunity for both my wife and me to experience the cycling culture of various cities and see just how much progress cycling has made in returning to the limelight as a mode of transportation. Most cities in the US are still a long ways from becoming paradise for cycle commuters, but at least things continue to advance in the right direction as cities start to realize the value and importance of having infrastructure for cyclists.

This was an extraordinary trip and we feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to do it and to share our experience. It may be another decade or more before we can do it again, but it would be fantastic to take an even more extended period to try to reach the remainder of the lower 48 states we have not yet visited. But for now, we are going to enjoy our time in Southern California with friends and family.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Road Trip: Covered in red rock dust (Cross Country Road Trip Ep. 6)

After two days in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, we bid farewell to Colorado and returned to the road, finding ourselves crossing miles and miles of amazing landscape to reach Moab, UT. Here, we parked our road bikes and picked up a pair of rented mountain bikes for our first excursion in the dirt.

It was hot. Not quite a drenching-yourself-just-by-stepping-out-of-the-house-because-it-is-humid-as-all-hell kind of hot, but rather the fabled "dry heat" that is endemic to the western part of the United States. We had packed quite a bit of water and planned out a route using the local trail maps so we were feeling confident that this would be fun. As avid road cyclists, and having already ridden in the steamy conditions of Atlanta, we figured we were plenty prepared for a full day of riding out here. What we were not prepared for was just how dirty we would get and how much fun we would have.

This was genuinely our first experience doing any real mountain biking. The rented bikes we had, a Kona Process for me and a brand-spanking new Trek Lush for my wife, were equipped with full-suspensions, massive wheels, grippy off-road tires, and disc brakes, meaning we could confidently ride and enjoy ourselves. Since we are total newbies at off-road riding, we decided it would be best for us to familiarize ourselves with the bikes by starting on a small flat trail right near the entrance to the lot where our car was parked. The first few strokes felt normal enough and the super short gearing meant pretty easy pedaling, especially on such a flat surface. Then, about 50-feet in, we hit the first bit of loose dirt and a few small culverts, causing the rear tire to break traction and the rear of the bike to start to skid and slide on the mud. Chunks of red dirt flew up and splattered our legs as we rode on. This was going to be fun!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Long Term Test: 2014 Acura MDX FWD Tech post #2

Second update
Current mileage: 4,963

Lately, most of my time with the MDX has been as a passenger. From the passenger seat, the MDX is still extremely comfortable, but it offers a lot more time to examine the material quality of the cabin. While most surfaces live up to the touch test, a few pieces that would be less noticeable when one is focused on the task of driving are under far more scrutiny from the right side of the cabin. Take the controller for the upper screen, which hardly gets much attention since I tend to rely on a combination of the touchscreen and voice control from behind the wheel, but playing with it from the passenger seat makes it feel slightly less premium. The motions and actions are all well-damped, but the controller itself begins to feel slightly plasticky after extended use. If Acura were to craft this from real metal, or at the very least, surround it with a veneer of real metal, it would go a long way towards making if feel much nicer.

Of course, the backseat is quite comfy. Spending several hour-long car rides back there does not feel at all like being a second-class traveler, unlike flying economy-class these days. In fact, leg room is more than plentiful and the ability to adjust the seat fore and aft offers even more flexibility to stretch out. While there are not a ton of amenities without the Rear Seat Entertainment Package, it is still a plenty enjoyable place to be and even full-size adults should have no problems spending a couple of hours back there, watching the scenery go by.

As a beast of burden, the MDX is excellent, with a huge amount of available cargo space. The airport pickup or Goodwill donation run is absolutely no contest for the MDX's rather cavernous rear hatch. With the third row seats folded, I was able to easily fit several suitcases and folding the second row seats offered up room to fit 6 large boxes and several odd sized objects. Hopefully by the next update, I'll have had a chance to throw our bikes in the back to see how easy they are to carry and transport, ideally in conjunction with a longer road trip for a little more time behind the wheel.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Road Trip: Rocky Mountain High (Cross Country Road Trip Ep. 5)

After some delicious KC BBQ, our road-weary travelers, now more than halfway across the United States, are back on the road and driving through the plains of Kansas. Catch up on the last installment of their adventure here.

A late morning start put the Rocky Mountains in view around late afternoon. At first, little more than a faint outline in the distance, the profiles of the jagged peaks came more sharply into focus as time passed and the sun sank in the sky. The corn fields of Kansas in our rear-view, we began the climb up to the Mile High City, arriving on the outskirts of downtown Denver just as the sun set. Dinner that evening at Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs included some interesting selections (pheasant and rattlesnake, anyone?), though it was the blackened cauliflower that was the real highlight of the evening.

The next morning, we biked downtown for breakfast, before reloading all our gear in the TSX and setting out for Mt. Evans, the highest paved road in North America. Despite the thinning air taking a massive chunk out of the TSX's performance, the winding road as we raced for the peak proved enjoyable nonetheless, each switchback and hairpin revealing ever more breathtaking scenery. The ascent revealed the excellent chassis control and communicative steering of the TSX, but also just how direly this well-developed chassis calls out for a light-weight, high performance motor, preferably of the forced-induction variety.

As we reached the parking lot just below the peak, we could look back down the mountain and see the tiny strip of asphalt that we just climbed. At over 14,000 feet, the air is thin and the impact is immediate as we take our first few steps. We grabbed a day pack with our camera and began the short hike to the highest point.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Road Trip: Missoura (Cross County Road Trip Ep. 4)

We rejoin our travelers as they depart from the state of Tennessee and continue their journey out west. Missed the last episode? Click here to read it!

Back on the road, quickly find ourselves leaving Tennessee and entering Kentucky. The weather continued to be unpredictable and lashed out with bouts of heavy rain as we headed north on I-65 through the rolling hills. Our journey today would take us further west, but before we hit St. Louis, we wanted to squeeze in a quick visit to one of places every car nut should find the opportunity to see: the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY.

The museum, which is located right near the factory where all Corvettes are produced, houses one of the most extensive collections of Corvettes
in the country and includes everything from prototypes, classics, and current models. There are also several fully decked out race versions that have competed at LeMans, in ALMS, and other sports car racing series where the cars were dominant in their performance class. The massive concrete structure is also home to the now infamous Corvette swallowing sinkhole that devoured several cars earlier this year, including at least one virtually irreplaceable collector car that was on loan to them from a customer's private collection. For any fan of racing, car design, and American sports cars, there are few places that feel as complete and thorough in its admiration for a single vehicle as these hallowed grounds.