Friday, August 29, 2014

Test Drive: 2015 Acura TLX 2.4 P-AWS

With the TSX and TL now officially gone from Acura's line up, a void was left between the compact ILX and almost full-sized RLX sedans. Rather than introducing another generation of the TSX and TL, Acura decided to replace the two cars with one and call it the TLX. The TLX is supposed to have the positive qualities of its predecessors: the nimbleness of the TSX and the power and space of the TL. Acura is also hailing the TLX as a true competitor to the BMW 3-Series, going so far as calling the BMW out on its website. With a pair of brand new direct injection motors - a 2.4 liter inline-4 and 3.5 liter V6 - some major weight loss, and a host of new technologies, has Acura hit the mark? Most importantly, does the TLX take us back to the days when Acuras were fun to drive cars with great interiors at a great price?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 BMW 650i xDrive Gran Coupe

Sometimes a coupe just does not cut it for one's lifestyle. I like the idea of a coupe, but I also like taking weekend road trips with friends or family and cramming everyone into a two-door with limited back seat leg room and compromised rear-seat headroom should only be reserved for those people you do not like. Still, what is an enthusiast to do if I like the long and low style of a coupe, but really only have space for a single car in my garage? We can thank the folks at Mercedes Benz for introducing a solution to this conundrum with the introduction of the first CLS-class sedan. It attempted to provide a coupe profile in a car with four doors that offers plenty of style with room for four adults. Observing the success of this car, BMW has gotten into the game as well and has introduced its own series of Gran Coupe models based on their 4-series and 6-series coupes. I recently had the good fortune to spend some time with the larger of the two models and experience just how much this segment has evolved since it was first introduced.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Editorial: Car Dealers Need to Fix the Test Drive Experience

Everyone has had the experience of going into a dealership to test drive a new car. Some people go in with the intent of buying a new car while others go just to educate themselves and to test the waters to find out if a new car is even worth considering. I do a lot of test drives each year, mostly in the latter category as it helps me stay informed about the marketplace and offers the opportunity to experience a pretty broad variety of cars. However, in far too many cases, the test drive experience is an absolutely dismal one and it highlights to me why some dealers struggle to convince buyers that buying a new car is a good idea for them. It would be in everyone's best interest for dealerships to invest in the test drive experience as it not only helps dealers sell cars, but also would get prospective owners excited about the new car they are looking to purchase.

For starters, dealers who think a quick 5-minute spin around the block using only right turns and with no variation in road conditions are fooling themselves if they think this is sufficient to convince a buyer that the car is right for them. Instead, a dealer should treat the test drive as an opportunity to curate an experience for the prospective buyer, helping to highlight the key traits that stand out about the car they are driving. On a sporty car, that may mean some opportunities to experience the cars handling, acceleration, and braking capabilities. On a luxury car, that may mean some less than perfect roads to show off the smooth ride or a loop designed to highlight the key luxury and convenience features that are equipped. Whatever the car, the dealership should make an effort to provide at least 20-minutes behind the wheel through a variety of different conditions to help demonstrate exactly what makes that car special, each segment paired with a brief talk track to point out the key feature being highlighted. The experience can be further tailored to each prospective buyer's needs by adjusting it slightly based on what the buyer has indicated as being important to them in a car purchase.

Of course, to do this, dealerships would need to invest in resources to search out and develop the routes, create the talk tracks, and train the salespeople to provide the right kind of experience. Since most dealers are being squeezed to maximize the number of sales, perhaps tasking this to a manager or to a specialist who is compensated based on helping to drive sales will provide the right kind of motivation to focus on improving this experience. Designing a system to manage time slots and setting aside the requisite vehicles to offer these longer test drives would also be a part of making this experience work. Of course, since it is a longer experience, salespeople need to be trained to weed out the casual lookers from the real sales prospects, but providing a casual looker the opportunity for a longer test drive might just turn them into a real prospect.

At the end of the day, the goal is not only to sell more cars, but also to help improve how people think of dealerships. People who go through a dealership should walk out feeling better informed and contemplating the merits of the car they just experienced and not feeling like they were just given some cursory attention and sent on their way. Adding this change in test drive procedure to their arsenal will help dealerships not only sell cars, but also build relationships that will be important for keeping their sales pipelines filled.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring

Every once in a while, a car reaches a crossroads and the automaker must select a path to follow that will set them on a road to either tremendous sales success or possibly to the great junk yard in the sky. For Honda's Accord Hybrid, we already knew the path that Honda selected when we tested the plug-in hybrid version of the Accord at the end of last year. However, earlier this year, we finally had a chance to check out the traditional hybrid version. In its last iteration, the Accord Hybrid was saddled with mediocre fuel economy and a high price tag. Honda appears to have learned a great deal from that experience because this new Accord Hybrid addresses everything that was wrong with that last version and adds a whole lot more to like.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Road Trip: Fort Revere and the Tiny Town of Hull

The night before, the weather had been promising. All signs pointed to only a slight chance of rain and only in isolated patches. I made up my mind to go for a ride and went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, the ground harbored small, but shrinking puddles. I took that as a sign that whatever rain was going to happen had already passed, although the sky was gray and thick with clouds. Throwing on my gear and grabbing my pack for the day, I confidently stepped outside to prep my motorcycle and brought it alongside the house as I finished putting on my helmet and gloves. The moment my visor came down, the first corpulent drop of rain splatters itself all over my field of view. Crap!

Riding in the rain is never much fun. The slicker road conditions mean not only less lean angle and more tire slip, but also crazier drivers who seem to have no clue how to deal with the slightly wet conditions. Add to that the possibility of ending up soaked from being exposed to the elements and you might start to see how the enjoyment can be sucked out almost entirely. Still, on this particular day, traffic was light and it was early enough in the day that I figured things would still be pretty calm by the time I returned. With those thoughts barely having time to fully register, I pressed on to the coastal town of Hull in Massachusetts where the remnants of Fort Revere sit, slowly being worn away by visitors and the ceaseless beating of Mass weather.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Editorial: Is There A Way to Prevent Child and Pet Deaths in Overheating Cars?

Image courtesy of USA Today
It could just be me, but I have noticed a lot more coverage on child and pet deaths from leaving them inside cars in hot weather. Media coverage did seem to increase after the case of the Georgia man who "forgot" about his child in his car and went to work. I am not sure if media coverage has increased because of this higher than normal profile case, or because parents are becoming more negligent. What I do want to know is whether or not car manufacturers can develop a system to prevent such deaths in the future.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: Initial D Final Stage

Last year, I reviewed the much anticipated, but extremely disappointing Initial D: Fifth Stage. It was disappointing because the animation was iffy, and the creators tried to cram hundreds of chapters of Shuichi Shigeno's work into 14 episodes. As mentioned in my earlier review, the final race between Initial D's main protagonist, Fujiwara Takumi, and his theoretical half brother, Shinji Inui, would take place as a final four episode arc. Here is what happens when the final 100 or so chapters gets crammed into four episodes.

Initial D: Fifth Stage ended with Takumi's teammate, Takahashi Keisuke and his FD3S Mazda RX-7, victorious in his race against team Sidewinder's Hojo Go and his NA1 Honda NSX. Final Stage picks up with the final race in the Initial D series: Takumi in his AE86 hatchback versus 15 year-old prodigy, Inui Shinji in his AE86 coupe. This is not the first AE86 versus AE86 race to occur in Initial D, but what makes this race different is that Shinji resembles Takumi at the very beginning of the series: apprehensive about racing and driving purely based on intuition and years of home course experience.

This race seems completely unfair at first. Takumi's AE86 is basically a race car, with its Group A
spec 20 valve 4A-GEU racing engine, full roll cage, and racing tuned suspension. Shinji's AE86 on the other hand is still sporting the standard 16 valve 4A-GEU engine (heavily tuned though), bolt on roll bars, and tuned suspension. Based on the specs of both cars, and Takumi's experience, he should have wiped the floor with Shinji and his AE86. But just as everyone thought Takumi would have gotten his ass handed to him by his numerous opponents with more powerful cars and experience, Takumi still manages win after win thanks to his experience on his home course. With years of experience driving the local mountain roads with his mother, Shinji manages to give Takumi a run for his money, and even causes Takumi to struggle to keep up throughout the first part of the course.

What this race really boils down to are the differences between Shinji and Takumi, not their cars. At first, Shinji did not want to participate in the race versus Takumi and Project D at all. While roaming through the spectator galleries, Shinji encounters the two women who form the racing team Impact Blue, driver Sato Mako and navigator Sayuki (whom Takumi met and defeated in the first season of Initial D). After listening to how passionate Mako and Sayuki were about racing, Shinji decided to race so he could, in his own words, be a "hero" and impress his friends as well as Mako and Sayuki. During the actual race, while Takumi is struggling to keep up, Shinji becomes overconfident and lets Takumi pass part way through the race. Shinji sees his gesture as innocent, wanting merely to watch Takumi drive from behind and see his "wings." Instead, Shinji's overconfidence spurs Takumi to drive even harder and faster, causing Shinji to panic and have to resort to bumping Takumi's car to maintain his driving line and retake the lead.

Takumi and Shinji trade positions a few more before times approaching the final section of the race. This is where we learn in a flash back that Project D leader Takahashi Ryosuke had intentionally re-tuned the engine in Takumi's AE86 for better low end torque, giving a more consistent power delivery. This meant Takumi was able to change gears at around 9,000 rpm instead of at 11,000 rpm like when his car was first equipped with its racing engine. Takumi is also informed that while he can shift past 10,000 rpm, the engine is not making a lot of additional power, and prolonged use of the higher rev range of the engine will strain the engine. Considering the timing of the flashback, it became obvious Takumi saw no other option put to push his engine to ragged edge in order to get in front of Shinji. Using his "blind attack" technique (where Takumi shuts off his headlights to confuse his opponent), Takumi is able to surprise Shinji and squeeze next to Shinji, throwing Shinji off his line. With Takumi now about half a car length ahead and in a position to overtake at the last corner, Takumi turns his lights back on to see his tachometer approaching 13,000 rpm. His engine blows, spewing oil all over the place. The wheels in Takumi's AE86 lock up, causing him to spin and forcing Shinji to spin out as well. Rather than letting the car keep spinning, Takumi waits for the car to turn 180 degrees, disengages the clutch, and lets the car roll backwards into the finish line. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Takumi wins his final race.

Watching Final Stage sort of reminded me of the good old days of Initial D, where the average race lasted three to four episodes. As expected, the art work did not change at all since Fifth Stage, since the animation team did not change. On the other hand, the storyboard team seemed to do a much better job of incorporating that last few chapters of the manga into the four episodes that make of Final Stage. Perhaps they were given more leeway since they only needed to compress 100 or so chapters into four episodes, rather than attempting to compress over 600 chapters into 14 episodes. Either way, Takumi and Shinji's race felt much more complete than the races in Fifth Stage.

Whereas the manga ended with Project D disbanding and Keisuke getting offers from professional racing teams, the Final Stage team was clearly given some leeway into changing some final material to the end of Initial D. Rather than scrapping the AE86 like in the manga, Takumi offers to use his income to repair his beloved car little by little until it runs again. Also, instead of just Keisuke getting professional race offers, Takumi also gets them as well. There is one final scene that is clearly added as complete fan service though. While Takumi is doing his nightly tofu delivery in his father's Subaru WRX STI Type R, he encounters a brand new Toyota GT86. As the two cars drive past one another, things go into slow motion as Takumi stares at the passing GT86. I suppose this was added, not just to help Toyota advertise the car, but to imply that the spirit of the AE86 is alive in its spiritual successor.

Overall, I had a lot more fun watching Final Stage than I did Fifth Stage. It may have only been four episodes long, but the nostalgia factor, especially the last episode, made it worth watching. Unfortunately, you cannot simply skip Fifth Stage and jump right into Final Stage (unless you have already read the manga), so you will have to suffer through Fifth Stage in order to understand what is going on with Final Stage. It would have been nice if the art team made some improvements, but I honestly did not expect it. There are also a few plot points left hanging at the end as well. For example, "Bunta's last favor," which is mentioned in Fifth Stage, is never revealed. If you can get over these details, you will enjoy the end of a series that has been on going for nearly 20 years.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Long Term Test: 2011 Honda Fit Sport post #3

Current Miles: 40,566

The hood of the Fit, covered in bugs
Another long term post about the Fit brings another road trip. This time, my fiancee and I took the Fit on a six hour journey north to my fiancee's home town of Sacramento, CA. This was not the first time we have taken the Fit to Sacramento, but it was the first time we did the trip when there was still daylight. This meant that I would actually be awake for most of the drive instead of passed out in the passenger seat.

The last longer trip we took with the Fit was a two hour drive to Oceanside. Two hours is fairly comfortable in the Fit as the seats are not too bad. The only real annoyance is listening to the Fit's 1.5 liter inline-four buzzing away at cruising speeds. For a six hour drive though, the seats did get pretty uncomfortable by hour three. I began to notice that the seats are not as thickly padded as I had originally thought. After switching places with my fiancee half way through so that she could get some rest, I stopped noticing how uncomfortable the seats were. The engine, on the other hand, still got kind of annoying after a while. In the end, it is nothing the radio cannot drown out.

Fuel economy for this trip was not bad. Because my fiancee and I both tend to drive with a heavy foot, we were only able to squeeze out 36 mpg. When we first took the Fit to Sacramento, I thought this number was pretty good. After having the 2014 Acura RLX for a while, and seeing me get 30 mpg on an all highway drive with the RLX, I was much less impressed with the Fit's results. Of course, the RLX's engine has direct-injection and runs on three cylinders during cruising, so those results were expected.

It might just be me, but the interior of the Fit is starting to feel old. Not that any of the interior materials are wearing out, but the cluster of buttons on the center console makes the car feel out-dated. My feelings largely have to do with the RLX and MDX now featuring touch screens, and the fact that the all new 2015 Fit comes equipped with a touch screen as well. While my fiancee had the Ford Fusion as a rental when the Fit was in for repairs, she fell in love with the fancy touch screen infotainment system, the keyless push button start, proximity key doors, and all the other fancy features she has never had on a car before. Considering the new Fit has all of those fancy new features, has more power (which is one of her primary complaints about the Fit), and gets better fuel economy, I may have some leverage to get her to trade her current Fit for a new one.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Editorial: Motor Trend's Jessi Lang Shares Why She Had Been Gone for So Long

After seemingly disappearing for nearly a year, Motor Trend's Jessi Lang posted a video about a week ago explaining her absence, and the accident that led to her long absence from YouTube and Motor Trend. The reason I want to share her story is because the type of accident she was involved in could happen to any of us, regardless of speed. Not only do I find Jessi's story of recovery to be uplifting, but I also find it to be a good tale of caution. Just because you are a good driver and focused, does not mean that another driver oblivious to their surroundings will not ruin your day.

I understand that many of our readers may not necessarily know who Jessi Lang is, so here is some background info on her. Jessi Lang is a writer, producer, and host of her own show on Motor Trend's YouTube channel. Though Jessi had posted non car related videos in the past, I had started following her videos when she was still reviewing cars for Roadfly TV. When I first watched one of Jessi's car reviews, I felt her attitude and personality brought a breath of fresh air to the droll and mundane car reviews available on YouTube at the time. Jessi later transitioned to working at Motor Trend, where she started off hosting the "Wide Open Throttle" show on Motor Trend's YouTube channel. Later, Jessi was given her own show called the "J-Turn." This show followed Jessi's exploits in the motoring world, such as learning to ride a dirt bike, learning rally driving, or participating in a team racing event. Admittedly, I was a pretty jealous of Jessi's day job, but at the same time happy to see someone pursuing their dreams and allowing viewers to follow their progress.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: F1 2013

I had been itching to get another racing game lately after finishing Burnout: Paradise. Instead of the not so realistic, arcade like gameplay of Burnout, I wanted something more realistic like Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo. Not wanting to spend $400 on a new Xbox One just to get Forza Motorsport 5 meant I had to look to my trusty gaming PC again. I stumbled upon F1: 2013 while browsing through Valve's Steam service. Having always been interested in Formula 1 racing, I decided to give this game a shot. Admittedly, I was not one hundred percent sure what I was getting myself into when I purchased this game. I knew it was going to be far more realistic than any car racing game I had ever played before. I just had no idea it was going to be this realistic.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Honda Civic Si Coupe

Since the year 2011, I have test driven a new Civic Si every year. In 2011, I test drove the final model year of the eighth generation Civic Si sedan. In 2012, I test drove and reviewed the new ninth generation Civic Si sedan. Because of the 2012 model's negative reception, Honda refreshed the Civic, and I test drove and reviewed the updated 2013 Civc Si last year. 2014 marks the Civic's mid-cycle refresh, which means another all new Civic Si to test drive. Yes, that is four different version of the Civic Si in four years.

For 2014, the Civic Si gets a more aggressive looking front end, big wing in the rear, standard 18 inch wheels, a slightly revised suspension, and a bit more power under the hood. Other changes include a standard touchscreen infotainment unit along with a standard right side blind-spot camera. What I was interested in was whether or not the minor performance enhancements would help inject a little bit of that Honda spirit back into the Si that the eighth generation car had.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Daydreams: Dodge Neon SRT-4

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia
Over the last few weeks, I have seen quite a few Dodge Neon SRT-4s on the road. Seeing the sudden influx of these cars on the road got me thinking back to my college days when I had wanted one of these cars. It was not a very visually exciting vehicle (it is a Dodge Neon after all), but the sound the car made was what made it special. The Neon SRT-4 did not come with mufflers, giving it a very throaty exhaust note and a very audible burbling and popping during down shifts. It was the car's unique exhaust note and performance numbers that made this car appeal to me.