Monday, July 28, 2014

Editorial: Is the Basic Car Alarm Still Effective?

Image courtesy of memecrunch.com
Not too long ago, I was awoken in the middle of the night by a car alarm that suddenly started blaring at a nearby apartment complex. Knowing the alarm sounded nothing like my own car or my fiancee's car, I attempted to go back to sleep. For the next five minutes, the alarm kept going off until it either disarmed itself, or the owner finally woke up and disarmed it. I started to think back to the night when my fiancee and I had first moved into our current place. Right around 11pm, a fifth generation Honda Accord with an aftermarket alarm system started going off. After about two to three minutes of continuous blaring, it stopped, only to start again 30 seconds later. This kept happening up until about 8am the following morning when we called the police since we were sick of hearing it. I later overheard the officer questioning the owner of the car, who was completely oblivious to his car alarm. All of this got me wondering: just how effective are car alarms these days?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Announcement: Cross country road trip!!

Beginning at the end of next week, East Brother (Kevin) and his wife will be making a cross country journey by car from the Boston area all the way to sunny Southern California. The trip will run through several parts of the country and will have numerous stops along the way where East Brother and his wife will be exploring different US cities by bicycle. They will be sharing their adventure exclusively via the East-West Brothers Garage Facebook Page so follow us to get their updates from the road. The route will be announced as they go and if you have any good suggestions on places to visit, please take a moment to share those with them via comments on Facebook. Shout outs to be provided to all suggestions that make it into their travel plans!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

2014 MINI Cooper S Clubman

Minis have always intrigued me. From the first time I saw one on TV, during a recap of a World Rally Championship from back in the day, I was fascinated with how people could actually take such a tiny vehicle and turn it into a full-fledged race car. Add in the fact that it always looks like a toy car that even a child could drive only piqued my interest further.

Of course, the current iteration of the Mini is not the Mini of the past. Now a part of BMW's slowly growing brand portfolio, Mini has benefited from some of BMW's production, engineering, and marketing expertise, turning what used to be a small niche brand into a true global auto brand. BMW, in turn, has benefited from Mini's expertise to develop front wheel drive platforms that may underpin future BMW vehicles. The first of these that we have seen is the 2-series Active Tourer, a vehicle that looks like a Mazda5 dressed in fancy duds. However, this BMW involvement had many concerned that the very classically British character of the Mini brand would be stifled by the cold, austere demeanor of its German owners. Are the new variants, including some pseudo-SUV and pseudo-workman vehicles too devoid of real flavor to be an honest tribute to the Mini brand name?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Editorial: EPA fuel economy proposal requiring road tests is pointless

Earlier this week, the EPA announced a new proposal that would require all car manufacturers use real-world data for its fuel economy calculations. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable proposal and stems from a recent number of cases where automakers are being sued for overstating their fuel economy figures in the pursuit of evermore sales. However, if we take a serious look at the way fuel economy testing is done now, we quickly see that this new proposal is little more than a bit of chest thumping by the EPA and will have little genuine impact on the complaints that consumers have about automakers and the fuel economy numbers on the Monroney sticker.

Currently, fuel economy tests are performed using dynamometers, essentially large calibrated drums, that simulate the loading and friction of the road on a cars wheels. Professional drivers are used to perform a series of standardized tests that are designed to simulate various driving situations that a typical driver might encounter. That data is recorded and the final fuel economy ratings are calculated from this data.

However, what the EPA does not clarify to us is that these tests are often conducted by the manufacturers and only submitted to the EPA for verification. Additionally, it is a little known fact that not all cars are required to be tested. In fact, the EPA allows vehicle models with identical drivetrains (engine and transmission combinations) to have fuel economy figures that are calculated off of the test of just one model. That means if the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Ford C-MAX share a drivetrain (which they do), Ford only needs to test the Fusion and can then use those numbers to calculate the data for the C-MAX (which they did). This has resulted in some rather gross overstatements of fuel economy performance as a result.

Image courtesy of Car and Driver.
So this most recent proposal that requires automakers to gather air-resistance and other conversion data from actual cars driving on a test track, rather than just from their computer models, does little to address the actual problem with how fuel economy ratings are determined. For one, the fact that the EPA does not independently test all of the cars itself leaves plenty of room for an automaker to simply fudge the data that it submits. Add to that the fact that automakers are not actually required to test all of its cars and can instead just calculate the fuel economy and you start to see where the whole system begins to fall apart.

Rather than this pointless proposal, the EPA should instead look to either better educate the buying public about the nature of the fuel economy numbers that are published on the window sticker of new cars or they should set up regulatory requirements that enforce independent monitoring of all fuel economy tests conducted by automakers and require that automakers test all cars.

Educating the consumers by arming them with an appropriate frame of reference for how those fuel economy numbers are calculated allows consumers to make more informed decisions. This places more burden on the consumer to be conscientious about their selections, but also reinforces that the information provided on the Monroney sticker is to serve as a reference, not to be a guarantee. Of course, there is always the possibility that this will fall on deaf ears, as much consumer advice frequently does.

Requiring independent monitoring of all automaker fuel economy testing procedures will help ensure that the automakers do not game the system through means such as using ultra-efficient model variants to set the data in the computer models. This also will put in place an independent observer that can suggest incremental changes to fuel economy testing procedures over time to improve their effectiveness and accuracy. And by increasing the requirement to test all cars, rather than allow automakers to rely on computer models, the numbers should be increasingly closer to actual performance.

As fuel economy continues to become an increasingly important factor in consumer's car buying decisions, having good points of reference are going to be increasingly critical to helping people make the right choice. Asking automakers to add real-world reference points to their data models is an improvement, but is quite literally about the absolute least that the EPA could do. Rather than making this relatively pointless change, the EPA really needs to throw its weight, along with the weight of the government, behind some changes that will have some real impact rather than wasting valuable political capital asking for the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Road Trip: Cape Cod Whale Watching

Whales are among the most majestic creatures that one can encounter in the wild. The opportunity to go and visit with them up close is something everyone should take the opportunity to do at least once in their lifetime. My opportunity came during a breezy day during the middle of summer here in New England.

The morning was dry and sunny, a rarity during Boston's summers, which are known for being hot, muggy, and fairly unpleasant. My wife and I had made the decision the night before that we would be taking the motorcycle down, intending to stop and grab some brunch along the way before arriving in Barnstable to board our boat. However, a confluence of factors delayed our departure and the unanticipated crush of traffic as we neared the Cape created further delay. By the time we had arrived at our brunch destination, they had shut down brunch service and would be not seating for lunch for another hour. Hungry and a little worn down from the heat, we quickly searched for options near the harbor where we would be boarding our whale watch boat and hopped back on the bike to try to make up for lost time.

Now that we were out of the heaviest traffic trying to get to the Cape, I had a chance to actually enjoy the windy roads that connect many of the little town along the north shore of Cape Cod. The narrow highway was lined on both sides with large trees that provided a much needed respite from the suns rays that had been beating down upon us on the way down from Boston. The road itself is smooth and well maintained, making this section of the ride the most enjoyable, yet. Unfortunately, it was all too short as we quickly arrived in Barnstable and found ourselves tromping through a gravel lot, the big Beemer perched somewhat precariously on its side stand. Stopping in for a quick lunch at the little seafood shack adjacent to the parking lot, we grabbed our stuff and hopped on the boat.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Maserati Ghibli S Q4

Maserati has always held a place among the upper echelon of performance brands. Since the Maserati brothers started the brand, it has produced some seriously winning sports cars and participated in world championship races throughout the last century. Although ownership has changed hands numerous times, the current company shares space with Ferrari and Alfa Romeo under the umbrella of the Fiat group. This arrangement has led to the resurrection of several of the brands storied nameplates, including the Quattroporte and, most recently, the Ghibli.

This new Ghibli, unlike its predecessors, is a four-door sedan positioned below the Quattroporte and offers itself as a competitor to the likes of the BMW 5-Series as well as the Mercedes E-Class. Jumping into such a competitive space, the Ghibli needs to find its legs quickly in order to remain a viable competitor for its share of the market. Being a part of the Maserati brand certainly does not hurt and the close engineering ties to Ferrari, care of its Fiat overlords, carries a fair amount of cachet among those who are looking for that performance pedigree. But has that Ferrari magic genuinely managed to find its way into the likes of this newest entry in the luxury mid-size class or will the influence seep in from below from another of Fiat's recent acquisitions, Chrysler?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Events: Herb Chambers Cars and Coffee July 2014

Last October, I attended the Cars and Coffee event put on by local dealer mogul, Herb Chambers. The event was great as it drew lots of enthusiasts of all stripes and included lots of people who genuinely appreciate cars. The variety of both cars and people who attend is astounding and I had the good fortune to find one more opportunity to check out the event this year. This time, instead of Sharon, MA, the event was held at Flagship Motorcars, a Mercedes dealership in the Herb Chambers family located in Lynnfield. It is well situated on a side street off of a major highway, allowing, one again, for a spectacular show as drivers departed the event. What sets apart these Cars and Coffee events from the official one for the Boston area is the fact that the dealership has access to a huge selection of exotic cars that they are not afraid to trot out and put on display. This means that even if participants are not able to make it, at the very least there is plenty of eye candy for all to see.

Click past the jump to access the photo gallery and to see select photos and videos from the event.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Innovation: Advanced tire sensors

Image courtesy of Continental
Regardless if you are in a car, a motorcycle, or a bike, the only thing that keeps you connected to the road are the tires. Those little contact patches of rubber can make or break everything from the ride, handling, acceleration, and braking. On whole, most Americans probably spend very little time thinking about the tires that their vehicles are riding on. Most car owners buy a car with the factory tires and drive them until their mechanic tells them that they need to be replaced, at which time the owner pays to have them swapped out. Of course, monitoring tires can sometimes be as easy as looking at the tread wear indicators on the tire, but only if you know what to look for. And that TPMS system in your car will only warn you if your tire pressures are getting low. However, what if the tires pressure sensors, those federally mandated electronic monitors attached to the tire valve stems, could do more that just tell you if your tire was going flat?

Image courtesy of Continental
New advanced tire sensors are being developed that are sensitive enough to be able to determine the minute changes that take place in the tires rotation characteristics to be able to detect tread wear over time and its effect on the rolling diameter of the tire. The obvious application here is to be able to more easily tell owners when their tires are approaching a condition that it would be unsafe to drive in inclement weather. However, with just a little bit of coding in the background, it would also be able to discern things such as uneven wear that could signal problems with the suspension or even help owners with proper tire rotation schedules. Best of all, with in-car telematics getting better every day, all of this information could be available to you via an app on the smartphone you already own.

Currently, Continental is the only tire maker focused on developing these more advanced sensors, but over time, it would not be surprising to see this technology start to proliferate to other manufacturers as well.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Long Term Test: 2014 Acura RLX Tech post #2

Second Update
Current Miles: 3,436

The 2014 Acura RLX has a strut bar...a bit unexpected.
About two months ago, I got the opportunity to use the RLX as a daily driver for a little over a week. Just as I would have driven my own S2000, I drove the car to and from work, as well as to run errands and hang out with friends. During this time, I was able to find out some new things about the RLX that I had not noticed when we first drove the car back in December.


As was initially mentioned in our first post, the RLX handles pretty darn well for a front-wheel drive car of its size. The Precision-All Wheel Steering (or P-AWS for short) does a great job at getting this nearly two ton sedan to rotate through corners quickly without nerve wracking understeer. Unfortunately, the RLX's nimbleness around corners does not translate to its ability to make a U-turn. While making a U-turn at a light one day, all the usual nimbleness of the RLX while carving up canyon roads seemed to vanish, and the car understeered like a pig. While a car's ability to make a U-turn is not generally considered a performance benchmark, I do worry that if you put your foot down too hard during a U-turn, you could potentially lose control. This is definitely something I did not experience with the 2011 RL thanks to its Super Handling All Wheel Drive (OR SH-AWD). I am guessing I will not have the same issue with the RLX Sport Hybrid, whenever it finally decides to show up.

Another quirk about the RLX I noticed were its insanely grabby brakes. A gentle tap on the brake pedal can nearly bring the car to a complete stop at low speed. Every time I go from driving my own car to the RLX, I always forget how grabby the brakes are and it freaks me out. I do wish the brakes had a more progressive feel to it. I do admit though that I am impressed with the stopping power of the brakes. The RLX is a very heavy sedan, and for the brakes to bring the car to a dead stop that quickly is impressive.

Most reviews and comments I have read about the RLX call the car bland to look at. Personally, I think it is a conservatively handsome car. While driving the RLX out to hang out with friends, I actually received quite a few compliments on how good the car looks. I often feel like the RLX, along with other Japanese luxury sedans, are unfairly criticized for their looks. If a German luxury manufacturer puts a car out that is merely an evolution of a conservative design they have used for years, it is called handsome and inspired. If a Japanese manufacturer does the same, it is criticized as being bland and uninspired.

We have only had the RLX for about half a year now, so we are looking forward to more opportunities to test Acura's newest full-sized luxury sedan. A long road trip with the RLX definitely sounds like it will be a good test of its ride and new noise isolation technologies.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Editorial: Exploring a new city by bike is just awesome

I really did not realize it until this weekend, but many of my best childhood memories of family trips ultimately involved cycling and bodies of water. Whether it was riding along the perimeter of Lake Tahoe as a family on rented bikes or along the sandy beaches of Santa Barbara in a pedal-powered Double Surrey, some form of human power along the wet stuff manages to ingrain itself deeply into my memory. Most recently, I spent a weekend with my wife and some friends, exploring the Canadian city of Montreal by Bixi, their local bike share system.

A city like Montreal, which is extremely cycling friendly (with over 300 miles of bike paths, including numerous dedicated cycle tracks and designated bike lanes, as well as about 5,000 bike share bikes available), is the perfect place to explore on two-wheels. Due to the proliferation of bike lanes, it was possible to crisscross the city fairly quickly and see a huge variety of sites in the limited amount of time we had. When we got to a place we wanted to explore in greater depth, there were bike share stations for us to park the bikes in and continue by foot. Even on the heavy Bixi bikes, the relatively limited elevation changes were manageable and the mild weather helped make the experience an extraordinarily pleasant one. And at CAD $15 for 72-hours and the ability to get anywhere in the city without worrying about parking, it was an inexpensive (if not quite totally hassle-free) option.

From the weekend in Montreal, I feel like there were two important takeaways for me:

1. Cities that want to improve tourism should invest increasingly more in cycling infrastructure and a bike share program.

2. Cycling is an excellent alternative to other public transit options, such as taxis or even light rail because if offers greater flexibility.

As a tourist, having the option and flexibility to get around a new town on two-wheels encourages me to explore a city more and allows me to spend more time checking out local merchants and restaurants. Plus, given how inexpensive it is as an option, it allows me to have a little more money to spend while I am in town. And the ability to come and go as I please and not be constrained by schedules or bumper-to-bumper traffic is a highly liberating sensation. With a big cross-country, multi-city trip coming up soon, I am looking forward to seeing many Mid-west cities by bike, albeit on my own bike this time.