Tuesday, December 27, 2011


So I woke up this morning and what did I see?
Yep, snow.
Two days too late for a white Christmas, and it was only a light dusting, but snow nevertheless. By early afternoon, most of it had melted away.
It’s not often I get to see snow. I live in South Florida, after all, and the last time was a year ago at Christmas when I was visiting my daughter in the St. Louis area.
A lot of people got it then. In fact, there were traces of snow even south of Atlanta on our drive back home. Evidence was gone by the time I hit the Georgia-Florida border.
So now here it is again.
Oh, by the way. I did mention I was back in the St. Louis area for the holidays, didn’t I?
Or did you think I was talking about snow in Miami?
It’s 81 degrees there as I write this.
I am looking forward to getting back. Just a little snow does a lot for me.

Monday, December 19, 2011


You no doubt have heard how one thing leads to another. It’s a trite but common saying. (Maybe that’s a definition of trite.)
But sometimes the path from the first thing to the last can be a fascinating one.
For instance, thanks to a friend who emailed me a couple of weeks ago I now know how I spent the day on July 1, 1956.
No, there was nothing of real consequence news-wise that day, at least that I know of. It’s not a date like Dec. 7, 1941, or Nov. 22, 1963, or Sept. 11, 2011, that would be permanent in your memory.
July 1, 1956. Just an ordinary Sunday really.
That’s what makes the leap from one thing to another so interesting. 
Here’s how things got started.
My friend Ed emailed me to make an observation about how there is nothing else in sports to match the buildup of tension as a pitcher who is working a no-hitter. I messaged him back and said the atmosphere around a heavyweight title fight -- back in the day, not now -- was something special, but we agreed that wasn’t quite the same.
I told him I’d never seen a no-hitter, but I had seen a journeyman pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds named Johnny Klippstein carry one into the ninth inning against the Brooklyn Dodgers before PeeWee Reese broke it up with a one-out single to right field.
The mention of the Dodgers led the next thing.
That led to Ed mentioning how he used to enjoy going to Dodgers games in Ebbets Field as a kid, and I wrote him back saying I wish I could have see the place.
(You may deduce now that somehow the date July 1, 1956, has something to do with baseball, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)
Something along the line, I brought up the name of an obscure Dodger pitcher from the 1950s, Karl Spooner, a lefthander who was supposed to be Sandy Koufax before there was a Sandy Koufax.
This really struck a note with Ed because Spooner had had such a brief career in the majors it isn’t likely many people, even baseball fans, have ever heard of him. Ed, though, had actually seen him pitch.
It was near the end of the 1954 season, Ed said, a meaningless game for the Dodgers because the New York Giants had won the pennant that season and swept the Cleveland Indians in four games in the World Series.
It’s too late now to make a long story short, so I’ll skip some more mundane details of our email exchanges.
Essentially, what happened was our dive into 1950s baseball trivia continued. With Ed bringing up old Dodger games, I got to thinking about baseball games I had seen as a kid.
In particular, I told Ed, I remember a high-scoring game between the Cardinals and Reds that had opened a doubleheader. The Reds won 14-10, I wrote him, scoring six times in the top of the 10th and then giving up two runs to the Cardinals in the bottom half.
Along the way, Ed, who was looking up the 1954 standings to confirm how the Yankees had won 103 games but still lost the American League pennant by eight games to the Indians, had referenced a website, www.shrpsports.com. I decided to check into it.
Glad I did. I found it listed all kinds of sports data and records, including all-time standings for baseball. Not only that, but scores of all the major league games were listed by year.
I could look up that Reds-Cardinals game!
I searched through the game-by-game scores by season for the 1950s and found that on July 1, 1956, the Reds had beaten the Cardinals in 10 innings, but by a 19-15 score, not 14-10. I was pretty sure that was it.
A quick Google search got me to the box score of that game to confirm it. The Reds won not only that game but the nightcap as well by a routine 7-1 score.
So, cut to the quick here, now I know that on July 1, 1956, I got up early in the morning to ride with my parents (and probably a friend) from Vincennes, Indiana, to St. Louis and Busch Stadium (the old, old one once know as Sportsman’s Park).
And we would have returned home that night on the long, nearly four-hour drive across Illinois on U.S. Highway 50, two lanes and small towns for all of 154 miles.
So, you see how one thing can lead to another?
Maybe “fascinating” is too strong a word. Let’s call it at least interesting, though. If the details are boring, why did you read this far?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I had a brief opportunity to drive the new Range Rover Evoque last month, very brief, and was hoping to have another opportunity again before I wrote about it because, quite frankly, you don’t get much of feel for a vehicle in less than a half-an-hour behind the wheel.
But the marketing people who paid for my lunch would like it if I mentioned it, so I will.
After all they were kind enough to bring in the designer, Gerry McGovern, over from England to talk about it.
He’s an interesting chap -- see how the Brit influence takes over; that’s the first time I can ever recall writing the word “chap” in ages-- and had done a remarkable job in giving one of the most iconic automotive shapes -- the boxy, muscular Range Rover -- enough of a twist to appeal to a totally different customer from those who usually show up in Land Rover showrooms.
Thus the Evoque has a more rakish roofline than you usually are apt to find in Land Rover (see above where the Ranger Rover you’re used to seeing is on the right and the Evoque in the middle; just click on the picture for a larger view).

It fits in more with the urban environment that most of us find ourselves in these days as opposed to the cross-country safaris Land Rovers are identified with.
In that, it has a lot of technological feature that will adapt to today’s iPhones and MP3 players and whatever else is coming in the future.
At the same time, it still is a Range Rover, the smallest, lightest, and most fuel-efficient in the lineup.
It comes in Pure, Dynamic, and Prestige trim, both featuring a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and sends 240 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque to an all-wheel-drive system. Fuel economy is estimated at 18 mph city, 28 highway.
Pricing starts at $43,995 for the Pure Plus five-door model, $44,995 for the coupe.
It doesn’t have the full off-road capability of other more established (and more expensive) Range Rover models with their low-range gearing for treks over the mountains and through the woods, but it doesn’t embarrass itself off pavement either.
Getting back to McGovern, he’s an interesting guy who started off his automotive designing career with Chrysler. He has worked with several different marques, including Land Rover back in the ’80s, and now is back with the company.
Our lunch conversation covered many topics, including my appreciation for the British mystery television mystery series Foyle’s War and his appreciation for the TV series Rome.
He has a wry sense of humor as illustrated by this story.
At one point, I mentioned something that iconic automotive executive Bob Lutz had said a few years ago about the much-ridiculed Pontiac Aztec. Lutz said if the Aztec had come from Honda it would have been heralded by the media as a great hit.
I asked McGovern if he knew Lutz, and he does, in a casual way. Turns out they have the same tailor in London.
On one of Lutz’ visits, the tailor asked him if he knew Gerry McGovern.
“Yes, I do, and I’ve never seen him in a decent suit yet,” Lutz said in his customary booming style.
I asked McGovern what the tailor had replied.
“He just sort of smiled and said that would be changing now,” McGovern said.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Quick now.
What kind of car is that in the picture?
A Smart Fortwo?
Good guess, but wrong.
This is the iQ, which Toyota is launching under its Scion brand.
Yes, it does look a lot like the Smart, but that’s the only similarity. The iQ has everything the Smart car has (save for the world's worst transmission) and more.
I saw it and drove it for the first time today as the automaker introduced it to auto journalists at an event staged at a cushy beachside resort along A1A south of Palm Beach. (Yes, life can be tough!).
Unless you live on the West Coast, you probably haven’t seen it yet because the Japanese automaker is introducing the iQ in “waves” around the country. It hit California and neighboring states in the fall and early next year Scion will bring it to the Southeast and Gulf States. It’s due in Florida in February.
New York dealers will get it next, then the rest of the East Coast and the Midwest by the middle of the year.
I’m not going to lie to you here and say wow, this is a great car and I really can’t wait to plunk down $15,995 to buy one. I wouldn’t. But that doesn’t have as much to do with the car as it does with my own personal tastes.
I just don’t get it when it comes to cars like this, but Toyota (or Scion, if you prefer) is betting a lot of young people will. They may be right. In addition to its style, the iQ has a many features, like its audio system, that will appeal to the young buyers.
The main difference between the iQ -- it stands for “intelligent Quality,” according to Scion National Market and Communications Manager Owen Peacock -- and the Smart Fortwo is that the iQ drives like a real car.
Its front seat is actually quite roomy, and it handles well even in heavy freeway traffic, or at least in did on my brief sojourn up the interstate. The 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at only 94 horsepower, but it doesn’t have a lot of weight (only 2,127 pounds) to get moving.
It’s a bit loud, though, especially at highway speed.
The big difference is that the iQ’s engine is mated to a CVT, or continuously variable transmission, and that is a big advantage over the Smart.
The Smart operates with what the manufacturer calls an automated manual transmission, and when you drive it as an automatic (which you can), the shifts are incredibly balky with an very noticeable lag from first to second, so noticeable I remember fearing that if someone was close on my tail they might run into me as I pulled away from a stoplight. Yes, it slowed that much.
There’s also another difference in that the iQ actually has a backseat. Not a very big one, mind you, but there is one back there. It would be ideal for happen to be driving circus midgets around town, but I’m guess here that doesn’t come up often in your life.
There is room for the front seat to move forward to make more room in the back, but if a regular-size adult gets behind the wheel, chances are the left seat is going to be pushed back too far for anybody who happens to have legs to fit comfortably behind the driver.
Safety is always a concern in a vehicle this size, and you can bet I gave extra attention to the dump truck that was pulling a trailer and running just to my left as I motor at 70 mph up I-95. The iQ doesn’t have its safety ratings yet, but Peacock did point out that it does have 11 standard airbags, including the first rear-window airbag.
Besides the size, the other drawback I see is in the mileage figures. The biggest reason I can think of to buy a car like this is for its ability to drive from here to China with maybe one stop for gas.
But the iQ is rated at only a combined 37 miles-per-gallon, which the company points out is the highest number for any non-hybrid vehicle. (Those 40 mpg figures you see tossed about in TV ads are for highway driving only.)
But you maybe would expect more out of something like the iQ -- at least I would have -- or the Smart, for the that matter. The Smart, which has only 70 hp, checks with numbers of 33/41. The iQ is 36/37 (yes, the difference in city and highway is negligible).
To me, that’s not a big enough difference over other, more traditional subcompacts on the market today to justify going with either the iQ or Smart.
To me,  both the iQ and the Smart come up just a tad short to winning me over completely. But if I had to choose between them, I’d say the iQ is a more, hmm, intelligent buy than the Smart.

Friday, December 2, 2011


The people who keep track of these things say that fuel economy has become more of a factor for car shoppers these days went it comes to deciding what to buy.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just think of all the car ads you see on TV touting fuel mileage of their cars.
So, does that mean horsepower wars are over?
Not necessarily. At least not in the luxury segment.
Take Jaguar and its XK line of coupes and convertibles.
That standard out-of-the-box XK (coupe or convertible) is a powerful performer in its own right. Its 5.0-liter V8 engine pumps out 385 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque, resulting in zero-to-60 times of 5.2 seconds for the coupe and 5.3 seconds for the convertible.
Apparently, it was a bit annoying to the Jaguar folks to have those digits added to the five-second time, so they came out with the XKR, which adds supercharging for boosts to 510 hp and 461 lb.-ft. of torque and a zero-to-60 clocking of 4.6 seconds.
But they didn’t stop there.
Introducing the 2012 Jaguar XKR-S.

For a price tag of $132,875, or about $50,000 more than the
XK and nearly $38,000 over the MSRP of the XKR, you get what the company is calling “the most powerful production car Jaguar has built.”
The XKR’s 5.0-liter V8 power plant has been tweaked to put out 550 hp and a whopping 502 lb.-ft. of torque that will move the XKR-S from zero-to-60 in a hiccup -- or 4.2 seconds, according to the company.
And the fuel economy -- if “economy” is the right word here -- is the same as the XKR, or about 15 miles-per-gallon city, 22 highway. (I’ll pause for a moment here to allow you to go revive any tree-hugger who may have stumbled on this.)

Just recently, the German motoring magazine Auto Bild Sportscars named the XKR-S its “2011 Sports Car of the Year” after polling more than 70,000 of its readers. It beat out the Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG and Audi RS5. So much for home-field advantage for the Teutonic competitors.
It doesn’t take more than a slight tapping of the accelerator to get the XKR-S moving. You can virtually feel the rear wheels clawing at the road as all that power propels you forward, leaving others behind so quickly you would think they weren’t aware the light had changed.
Though tuned for the track with a slightly stiffer suspension, the XKR-S with its sport front seats provides a comfortable ride in a street environment as well, though it consistently seems to beckoning you to hit the open road where it can roam free. Unlike say the Dodge Viper, which I love on the track but grow weary of muscling around town, the XKR-S is at ease in both locales.
It rides low, which means you want to take care when you enter a parking lot with curbs separating the rows of spaces. Unfortunately, drivers before me had already made their marks underneath the front air dam, and a huge vertical scratch marked dead center of the splitter. What’s with these people?

I love the way the XK series looks from the outside, from the catlike headlight configuration down the sleek profile to the rear taillamps. The wide, 20-inch wheels on the XKR-S give it a solid, muscular stance
Inside, you’ll find the usual luxury refinements for the class, lots of leather with contrasting stitching throughout. 

The front cabin is spacious for the two occupiers of the frontseat, no so much for those trying to squeeze into the back. In fact, I didn’t even try it. But then, if you buy one of these, you’re going to be behind the wheel, not riding in the back, so what do you care?
A lot of people don’t, but I like the way the rotary dial gear selector rises like a Phoenix from the center console when the engine is engaged. It raises in me a feeling of anticipation as I think about all the power is going to be sent through the automatic gearbox when I push the start engine button.
You can set the gear dial on automatic or move it to “S” for sport mode and select gears with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Frankly, with South Florida’s flat roadways I find little need for that, though if I am looking for some sporty performance I’ll use those shifter every once in a while.
You can also adjust the driving dynamics (sportier or more comfort) with the push of a button on the console.
If I have a complaint -- and you know I do or I wouldn’t have brought it up, it is with the operation of the audio and navigation systems, particularly the latter. The map screen is not very big, and the system is on the fussy side to operate.

At a time when even the Germans, who seem to love complexity when it comes to technology, are making such systems easier to operate, it might behoove Jaguar designers/engineers to take a closer look at their navigation system, maybe bring in someone who isn’t familiar at all with them to find out how to make them more intuitive to work.
My motto: If you have to consult the owner’s manual to find out how to change the map scale, you need to consider some changes.
But that shouldn’t be a discouraging factor.
What is discouraging is this: Jaguar is bringing only 100 XKR-S coupes and 50 convertibles to the U.S. for the 2012 model year, and, according to the company, the coupes have already sold out. The convertibles, which were introduced at November’s LA Auto Show, just went on sale.
Who’s buying?
I asked that question of Wayne Kung, Product Communications manager, who noted that the demographics of the typical car buyer these days are “often hard to pin down.”
When I suggested rich guys as the answer, he sent this email reply:
For some, this is the culmination of a life of hard work, and sort of personal gift for their success and decades of raising family and working. Some may be wealthy, while others may just be serious car nuts.  Like most luxury manufacturers, we lease and finance most of our cars, so our customers come from many places in life, and buy for many reasons.
Not to pick on Jaguar’s former parent company, but I don’t think you’re going to find many Ford Fiesta buyers stopping by the Jaguar showrooms any time soon, no matter how big a car nut they are.
Like I said, rich guys.
More power to them, I -- and apparently Jaguar -- say.