Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Test Drive: 2017 Honda Civic Si Coupe

It's been three years since I last tested a Honda Civic Si. The last model I tested was the second refresh of the ninth generation Si coupe. Equipped with a K24 2.4 liter four-cylinder, this particular Si felt somewhat neutered compared to the eighth generation Si. For the 10th generation, Honda opted for a beefier version of the 1.5 liter, turbo four-cylinder out of the Civic sedan, coupe, and hatchback. I was originally fairly skeptical when it was announced that Honda would be using this smaller engine since everyone in the enthusiast community was expecting a de-tuned version of the Type-R's 2.0 liter turbo four. Now that I've had the chance to experience the car with the turbo 1.5, do I still think it needs the Type-R's motor? I'll get to that in a bit. Let's start with the rest of the car.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Test Ride: 2017 BMW R1200RS

It has been a while since I had a chance to ride a new motorcycle. Even when I have attended the International Motorcycle Show, the bikes usually have quite a few miles on them. When I rent a bike from a place like Motoquest, the bikes frequently have serious miles. So during my recent hunting online for motorcycles, I came across reviews for a new bike from BMW, the R1200RS. This took the new air and water-cooled flat twin engine from BMW's insanely popular GS adventure bike and places it into a frame that is set up more for sport touring. I absolutely love the torque of the GS flat-twin; this is one of the most iconic engines in motorcycling made better by the addition of water-cooling to create something with more power and ever more reliability. The idea of taking this new, better engine and the ultra-reliable maintenance-free Paralever shaft-drive rear-end and applying it to something more sport touring oriented was certainly very intriguing.

On a day when I needed to be available due to a termite tenting at our house, I finished up dealing with the exterminators and took a little detour before my next appointment to stop by my local BMW dealer to check out this interesting new bike.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Test Drive: 2016 Ford Mustang EcoBoost

There is always a moment of nervousness when I get off the plane and am making my way to the rental car center. Even though I am using National, which is one of my favorite rental agencies, the selection of cars available in their Emerald Aisle at various airports is oftentimes a serious toss-up. I could end up with a great car, but I have also been saddled with a few duds from time to time. The day and time of arrival really can make a difference and sometimes, the best time to show up is when there are the fewest cars available because that means a greater likelihood of a free upgrade. As we got off the plane at Logan, I was silently hoping we would score something fun for our time in Boston.

Luckily, it would seem that I was worrying for nothing. When we got to the structure, the selection was gloriously thin, leaving a handful of SUVs, minivans, and, surprisingly, a pick-up truck or two. Tucked away in a corner, hiding behind a column, was a jet black Mustang covertible. I looked over at my wife to see if she was okay with the choice and got a nod of approval. Excellent!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Test Drive: 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti

As if there weren't enough cars in the mid-size luxury class, a nameplate long forgotten in the US rose from the ashes to once again try and sell their vehicles to a now SUV obsessed American public. Their efforts began with an obscenely overpriced supercar that most people didn't even know existed. Next came their two seat sports car that, while looking and driving exceptionally, made far too many compromises on design and comfort to meet a price point. And so we come to the company's effort to compete in the mainstream mid-sized luxury sedan segment; an overcrowded segment that is unfortunately losing popularity thanks to America's infatuation with crossovers. What company am I speaking of? None other than Alfa Romeo.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Product Review: Away Carry-on Luggage

With lots of travel scheduled for this year, I thought it was time to finally invest in a properly sized carry-on bag to avoid the challenges of dealing with checked baggage when flying. The size of the allowed carry-on continues to shrink every few years and the cost of a decent piece of luggage is far more than I honestly care to spend every few years replacing a bag so I dug around the web in search of something that I felt would serve as more than just a bag to carry clothes so that the expenditure would be worth the cost. There are lots of very expensive options with all manners of different features and functionality. Some came with GPS tracking and apps that performed all manners of nearly useless functions while others lacked anything unique at all, making it difficult to justify their high price. It took a lot of searching, but I finally stumbled upon Away, a small company that produces a Goldilocks carry-on bag that was just right for my needs.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Long Term Test: 2007 BMW K1200S post #8

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I have had to start over, in a sense, with the K1200S. My bike, before things went sideways, wore the BMW sport saddlebags and had the SW-Motech adapter installed for a top case. It also had a set of  auxiliary driving lights that have been useful on more than a few occasions. Now, I am in a position to need to re-install the bags, along with the components needed to hold the bags. Given that the opportunity has presented itself, I felt that this was the right time to add a Kaoko throttle lock, which has sat uninstalled in my garage now for a few months. The next time the bike goes into the shop, which may need to be soon, I will need to have a few additional items addressed as well.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Long Term Test: 2015 Jaguar F-Type V6 post #5

While I have spent much time talking up the beautiful sounds and the excellent driving experience of the F-Type, I want to take a little time to really dive a bit deeper into the interior of this car. As one would expect, give the rather premium price tag, Jag has absolutely had to go for better materials in order to compete and has thrown in a lot of the right touches in the right places in order to make the rather intimate cabin feel like it is worthy of its price. Yet, it is not totally devoid of areas worthy of improvement, a reality of any car that is not outfitted with a bespoke interior or priced well into the six-figure range.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Overseas Adventures: Peña de Bernal

The last few months have been crazy. Work and home life have made finding time to write nearly impossible and with all the other commitments, the insanity of constant go-go-go has left my wife and I a bit exhausted. So we have been looking forward to this trip to Mexico to attend a friend's wedding for some time. Our initial research seemed to turn up little about the destination beyond the fact that it was just short of three hours drive north of Mexico City at the foot of one of the largest monoliths in the world. With few preconceptions in mind, we boarded our flight to Benito Juarez Airport.

As we made our final descent into Mexico City, it looked little different from any other major city I had flown into. Aside from signs in Spanish instead of English, this could really have been a major airport in the US. Customs and immigration went smoothly and before long, we were roaming the terminal in search of the rental car desk. When we finally found the desk, my rudimentary Spanish and the desk agents rudimentary English made communicating a challenge, but eventually, we were being transported to the actual off-site rental car location.

Now, as someone who rents cars not infrequently, I have experienced what I thought was the entire range of terrible rental car experiences, but picking up a car in Mexico City has got to have been the slowest experience I have ever had to date. Even with a reservation and pre-selected insurance options along with my driver's license and credit card on file, it took nearly 30 minutes after we arrived at the off-site location for a car to be made available. When the Jetta was finally presented to us, and after a thorough inspection, we set off towards our destination.

I have been in cars in Mexico before and fully expected the driving conditions to be somewhat unpredictable, but the first moments in traffic were downright frightening. Lanes pretty much were non-existent to say nothing of lane discipline. It was not infrequent to see large convoys of Federal Police along with Military and State Police, packed into marked pick-up trucks and carrying enormous amounts of firepower, cruising down the road. We made quick progress and transitioned from local highways onto the nationally built toll roads where conditions improved quickly. Well-maintained and thoroughly modern, the toll roads allowed us to make quick progress through central Mexico towards our final destination.

The drive itself was most horrendously uneventful. For all the horror stories I had read online prior to the trip, we made good time and had absolutely zero difficulties safely navigating our way through the interior of the country and to the tiny town of Bernal. As we rolled into the outskirts of town, the landscape shifted from empty plains to rolling hills. We approached a traffic circle and suddenly, the town materialized before us as if by magic. The main street quickly gives way to cobbled paths as we approach the town center and our accommodations for the evening.

Were it not for the tourists and cars, this town could just as easily have been plucked out of history. The architecture is largely older masonry construction and looks weathered by decades of the sun's rays. Of course, the weathered outsides belie thoroughly modern insides. Our hotel, for instance, with its imposing wooden doors and knurled wrought iron door handles and knocker are contrasted against a modern courtyard and filled with properly modern amenities, including a jetted soaking tub and LED lighting. Looking into the neighbor's homes as we walked by and we could see that while their homes looked aged on the outside, the insides were equally filled with modern amenities.

While we stayed just steps from the town center, the wedding we were attending was on the outskirts of town. Conveniently, the very edge of town was little more than a 5 minute walk. The wedding hotel looked even more out of place, feeling like a movie set with its historic looking facades book-ended by desert shrubbery and an elaborate looking chapel. It was hard not to feel transported to a whole different world every time we walked around.

On first full day in Bernal, the main activity was a tour of a local vineyard and winery. While I am certainly no expert, I have been to enough wineries and consumed enough wine to know what my personal preferences are and understand pretty well what goes into a decent bottle of wine. The La Redonda Winery, is a relatively new winery established in a region that is quite warm and dry. It produces a rather large number of varietals in both reds and whites, and is among the few wineries in Mexico to begin to export to areas outside its home region.

We started the afternoon by sitting for a late lunch and then strolled the grounds in the afternoon sun to tour the vineyard and winery facilities. It is immediately evident from the way the graftings are done and the plantings aligned, there is still a gap in the refinement compared to the more established wineries we have been to in the past. Still, one cannot argue with an inexpensive meal and good company.

Returning to the town in the late afternoon, a woman we had met at the winery offered to show us a bit of the town where we got to see the work of some local artisans and grabbed an impressively tasty meal for not very much money. Since she used to live in the town itself, she knew all of the local shop owners and was kindly able to help me track down a Cuban cigar (well, more a cigarillo, but better than nothing) that I could enjoy later in the evening.

The morning of the wedding, we got a late start and wandered around the town for a bit in search of a suitable brunch, passing by many a small shop filled with wondrous curios. While we strolled, our stomachs eventually guided us to a cafe that appeared to be the only one in the area serving a mixture of Mexican-Italian cuisine and a brunch that included some lovely looking fruit filled pastries. We sat up on the roof, enjoying the impressive view of the peña while we dined on our meal. The food was tasty, if not particularly memorable, but the views were worth the price of the meal.

Our bellies full, we continued our wanderings and found ourselves in a haphazardly but beautifully decorated courtyard. Filled with all manners of flowers and trees, the real highlight of the courtyard was several live animals, including an entire pool of turtles and several very chatty birds. At the very back of the courtyard was a restaurant built up around the base of a massive tree whose canopy provided diners with shade during their meals. This led to yet another spectacular view of the monolith, looming protectively over this quaint village. We enjoyed our stroll around the town, soaking up the rays of the afternoon sun and enjoying the stiff breeze before we headed back to our hotel to get dressed for the wedding.

After an epic night of food, drink, and dance, we got a chance to once again enjoy the town, this time sitting for breakfast with a group of friends on yet another rooftop with a stunning view of the monolith. As we dined, it was possible to spot the tiny figures of people making climb up the rock; a climb we would be making later that day. Despite slow service and a meal that took far too long, we still had a great time. To top it all off, we trekked to a different part of town to escape the heat and grab some ice cream to cap off our lunch and watch in bemusement as one of the neighborhood's stray dogs respectfully followed us around until he found a shady spot to lay down for an afternoon nap.

Later that afternoon, we met about a dozen others to make the climb up the peña. A short drive took us to the base of the rock where a number of vendors had set up shop selling everything from chotchskies to clothes to food and drink. We had waited until the heat had abate a bit before setting off so while it was warm, dry, and breezy, the conditions were near perfect for making the trek. Hiking up the rocks combination of hewn outcroppings and man-made steps, we made steady progress towards the highest point that could be reached. Occasionally the path narrowed, necessitating crossing one person at a time, but for the most part, it was a pleasant hike.

As the trail gave way to slick rock face, reminiscent of the surfaces we once traversed by mountain bike in Utah, some of our compatriots decided they did not want to continue on. Those that did scrabbled up the rock and found ourselves perched upon an outcropping almost three-quarters of the way up the monolith. The views were understandably spectacular and it was possible to observe the entire village from this vantage point. In fact, most of the valley was visible from where we stood.

However, as the sun was starting to set, we needed to make the descent back to the base. The hike up was a lot less intimidating than the hike down. When you can keep looking up, it is easier to not realize how high up you are, but when you are headed down, you can't help but realize just how precarious a situation you are really in. Of course, as we made our way down the rocky, dusty surface, we crossed paths with many people making their way up carrying large quantities of beer. It appears the peña was quite the well known hangout for getting drunk, which is probably why the locals were telling us stories of people frequently tumbling off the rock and ending up seriously injured.

Luckily for us, sober and well hydrated, we made it safely down, rejoining our larger group, now made up of a dozen weary and hungry hikers. As it was nearing 9PM on a Sunday evening, we managed to work out with a local pizza shop to deliver us a few pies as we made a valiant effort to consume the leftover beer and liquor from the wedding. Over pizza and booze, international politics, social justice, and many other heady topics of discussion were passionately debated, backed by a soundtrack of indie rock and pop piped over a small speaker in the corner of bar. Everyone was happy to be letting off some steam and relaxing before we all had to depart the next day to return to our real lives soon.

The morning of our departure was relatively relaxed as we had allotted plenty of time for the drive back to Mexico City. Stopping to grab a pan con queso, a local favorite we had seen advertised in several places, we hopped onto the toll road and started the long slog back towards the airport. For the most part, the drive was uneventful, aside from one panic moment where a herder's goats had gotten loose and ran onto the highway, directly in our path of travel. Luckily I had been looking far enough ahead that that heart stopping moment translated into little more than a a test of the Jetta's braking prowess. As we neared the airport, road closures took us off course and resulted in a bit of a test of my sense of direction, but eventually we were able to locate the car rental place, though it took nearly 20 minutes to actually process the return of the car.

Another 20 minutes later, we were seated in the Aeromexico Lounge, enjoying a drink and some snacks while we waited to board our return flight back to LA.

When we tell people we recently visited Mexico, people immediately assume that we visited one of the many touristy cities and stayed at one of those all-inclusive resorts. While those sounds like fun places to go, we were genuinely happy to have had the opportunity to visit a part of Mexico we would never have even known existed, much less visited if not for the decision by our friends to host the wedding there. It forced us to practice our much atrophied high-school Spanish and gave us an opportunity to meet local people and eat local food we might otherwise have missed. These are the types of off-the-beaten-path travel experiences my wife and I have always loved. A chance to experience a more authentic side of the culture of a foreign country. Hidden gems like Bernal exist in every country and we hope we will continue to have the opportunity to discover many more.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Long Term Test: 1984 Shogun 600 post #4

Beach Streets Midtown open streets
event in Long Beach, CA
While the Orca has sat on the rack gathering dust, the Shogun has seen at least a little bit of use. As a part of the semi-annual Beach Streets event, I was able to not only get out and ride a little bit, but also give the Shogun some much needed and long overdue maintenance.

Key among the items that needed to be addressed was the chain, which had not been cleaned in easily a couple of years and a few hundred miles worth of riding. As a result, the drive train, including the chain, chain ring, and rear derailleur all had accumulated a wealth of road grime. Since we had plenty of people working the booth I was staffing at Beach Streets, I took the opportunity to give my chain and drive train a good scrubbing, With it freshly cleaned and lubed, I was able to take it for a quick ride along the Beach Streets route while the streets were still closed. For a bike that is over 30 years old, it still rides beautifully and is still my favorite bike ever.

Hopefully once the weather becomes agreeable again in the spring, I will be able to spend more time out riding. I might also have a few accessories that will be acquired to allow me greater latitude in carrying precious cargo. We shall see at the next update.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Long Term Test: 2012 Orbea Orca Bronze post #4

My poor Orbea has been sitting largely untouched for the last several months. Following some injuries sustained at the end of September, in conjunction with the colder weather and the craziness of my current home life, I simply have not had as much time to ride as I would like. To make matters worse, I also have not had the opportunity to give it a proper tune-up while it has sat out of service. Of course, once things settle down again, I intend to get back on the bike and get out there to meet the seemingly impossible task for me of riding 1,000 miles in a single year.

Still, in the meantime, even though I am not riding it, at least I get to enjoy looking at it. The Orca may not be the most wild design out there, but compared to the simplicity of the rest of my bikes, it is genuinely a great looking piece of art to hang up and be appreciated.