Thursday, February 23, 2012


A question: Does this look like a Lexus to you?
Ignore that slant L emblem in the center of the hood for a moment and I think you will agree with me that, no, this car doesn’t fit the Lexus profile.
Badging from the parent company Toyota would be more fitting, at least in my view.
Doesn’t make it a bad car or anything of the sort. It just isn’t what I have come to expect from the Japanese automaker in its luxury line
Perhaps with the CT 200h, the company is breaking new ground.

What we have here is the least expensive -- one hesitates to use the more succinct “cheapest” when referring to a luxury auto -- Lexus on the market, and the most fuel efficient.

It checks in at under $30,000, a little over $4,000 less than the next up-the-line, the IS 250, and, with its hybrid drivetrain, delivers fuel mileage rated at 43 miles-per-gallon city, 40 highway. Those figures, you could correctly surmise, as the best among Lexus models, roughly 8-6 mpg (city vs. highway) better than its “cousin,” the Lexus HS 250h sedan.
That’s not quite as good as the new Prius Hatchback (51/48) with which it shares its drivetrain technology, but it’s still pretty impressive.
Lexus introduced the CT 200h for the 2011 model year, trumpeting it as “a hybrid with sporty, sexy styling, dynamic handling, best in class mileage and all the luxury of a Lexus.”

I think it met its goal. The styling -- even if un-Lexus-like, does please the eye, the handling (when in “sport” mode) offers a bit more than you get from the usual gas-electric hybrid, and the mileage and luxury are there.
The cabin is roomy and comfortable and high-quality materials are evident throughout. There isn’t quite the overkill in refinements found in the rest of the Lexus line, but it’s obvious you’re not sitting in a basic Prius either.
There are some interesting touches, starting with the gear shift lever.
Equipped with a CVT (continuously variable transmission), there is no need for the usual kind of shift lever offering a selection of gears. There is simply a handle sticking out of the center stack that lets you slide the transmission into Drive or Reverse. Then it snaps back into place and you forget about it. You push a button to put it in Park.
The most intriguing aspect is what Lexus calls the Remote Touch controller. It operates various functions that are displayed on the screen at the top of the center stack.
I can’t remember where I first saw this -- it may have been on a Prius, but I’m not sure -- but basically Toyota figured that because most people these days are familiar with how a computer mouse works, it could take advantage of that familiarity and incorporate it into the operation of not just the navigation system but the audio, climate and other car settings as well.
You use a knob on the console, which is within easy reach of the driver, to move a little “finger” on the screen to whatever function you want, and then squeeze the bar next to the “mouse” to complete the operation.

It really doesn’t take that much to get the hang of it. Even I managed it the first time and without diving deep into the owner’s manual.
The nice thing is that you can operate some functions, like turning up or lowering the volume on the radio or changing stations, by turning knobs on the center stack or using the duplicate, steering wheel-mounted controls.
Speaking of knobs, there is one big one in the center near the bottom of the center stack. You turn it to select what driving mode -- economy, normal, or sport -- you want to use. Like the gear shift, the knob snaps back into place after you turn it and a little light in the instrument panel confirms what mode you have selected.
Pressing a button next to the knob puts the car in EV mode. The CT 200h features a four-cylinder gas engine and a pair of electric motors which, together, pump out 134 horsepower to the front wheels.
As with most hybrids, the switch between electric and gas power or a combination is seamless and dictated by your speed and other conditions. When you put the CT 200h in EV mode, you can run it on electric power only for short distances. Very short, I confirmed the time that I tried it. 
I liked to drive in sport mode, but don’t let the name fool you. The CT 200h isn’t going to suddenly turn into a competitive track car just because it is in sport. Though the steering and throttle response are a bit sharper, this is still a vehicle that labors to get from zero-to-60, nearly 10 seconds (9.8 according to company clockers).
Keep that in mind when you are trying to break into the flow of traffic at an intersection. Once up to speed, the CT 200h isn responsive enough, but I still gave oncoming vehicles plenty of space when I was passing on a two-lane road.

Probably the oddest feature on the center console is a gizmo that sticks up just to the right of the Remote Touch control. It holds your cellphone while you use Bluetooth for hands-free calling.
It slides back and forth on a track, and really seems quite fragile and flimsy I was surprised to find it on a Lexus. My guess is that it’s something that someone is going to break within the first six months you own the car.

It’s going to be interesting to see what comes in the future with the CT 200h. Going downline -- i.e., putting out less expensive models to widen your customer base -- doesn’t always work so well in the luxury market.
Perhaps its hybrid technology, which in itself is a selling point for a certain segment of the population, will help the CT 200h overcome that potential obstacle. But isn’t part of the appeal of owning a luxury car is that it allows you make the statement that you have made it in the world?
Not sure that works in the CT 200h. But I’ve been wrong before. Oh, boy, have I!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


This is a picture of my cellphone in a bowl of rice.
You  are probably asking yourself, why did Paul put his cellphone in a bowl of rice?
The answer is simple. I didn’t have any mashed potatoes.
No, wait.
That isn’t it.
Let me explain.
Earlier yesterday my wife came upstairs with my cellphone and asked me to check to see if it was working because she had not realized it was in the pocket of my shorts when she did the laundry, and, yes, it had gone through the washing machine, soak, rinse, spin, and all.
When I hit the button to turn it on, naturally, nothing happened. It was kaput.
Well, I thought, as soon as I get this work done (Monday is one of by busiest days during college basketball season) I’ll run over to Target and get a new one. I don’t have, or want, any fancy service. I bought a Tracfone last year and am perfectly happy with it.
First, though, I took a moment to call Tracfone to see if I could simply take the SIM card out of the old phone and put it in the new one and maybe save my list of phone numbers.
But the tech person, who must have been somewhere in India or elsewhere in a far away part of the world (not that there is anything wrong with that), told me, no, that was not how it works. My list of numbers was stored on the phone, not the card.
Sigh. They were lost, of course.
Later in the evening, before heading out to the store, I decided I’d try to see if I could get the phone working by blow drying it with a hairdryer.
Nope. Didn’t work.
So off to Target I went.
I found a replacement phone, but in talking to the clerk, he told me that sometimes if you put a cellphone that has been in water in a bowl of rice, the rice will absorb the moisture and it (the phone, not the bowl or rice) will work again.
Worth a try, I thought, and I went back home without buying a replacement.
Thus, the picture of the phone in a bowl of rice. You will notice it is uncooked rice. I’m not a complete idiot.
Looking back, I bet that clerk had a big laugh with his fellow workers later that night about how he had some doofus believing that putting a phone in a bowl of rice would fix it.
“Let’s try Jello next,” one of them probably suggested after he stopped laughing. 
As you no doubt have surmised, the next morning when I tried to turn the phone on again, it didn’t work, of course. No easy solution ever does work for me. I decided to plug it into its charger, and all I got was a very cloudy screen.
Dead. Gone. Kaput
So I went back over to Target and got a new phone.
It seems more technologically advanced than my old one, but it cost the same. I just use the phone to make calls any way, and check the time and sometimes the date, so whatever technology is available is kind of wasted on me. I don’t need an iPhone or any of its imitators.
So now I’m in the process of restoring all the numbers I lost, which is not an easy job.
If you get a moment, give me a call. It might help speed sthings along.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


So who sez I’m not a romantic?
Here Virginia and I are having lunch at the Islamorada Fish Company in the Keys, and on Valentine’s Day yet!
Of course, it was her idea to go, but hey! I did the driving down there.
This really is one of our favorite lunch spots, and we don’t get down here nearly as often as we should. It’s less than 90-minute drive from our house, though it was a little longer on the return since he hit a couple of school zones.
I’m assuming you are somewhat familiar with the Keys, but if you’re not, let me explain something. They don’t have a lot of cops down there, but those that are there have only one highway to patrol. We probably saw three or four Monroe County sheriff’s cars in the two school zones we passed through on the way back home, and two of them had other motorists pulled over.
Any way, as I was saying, the Islamorada Fish Company is one of our favorite spots.
When we first went there, back in the mid-1990s I guess it was it was, you walked out on a concrete pier to where several a few tables with umbrellas were set up.
The original area has been expanded and now is under a huge tiki hut roof. There are two walkways to get out to it now, and there are tables set up alongside them as well an area under cover near the main building. We were sitting at one of the tables set up just before one of the walkways because the place was crowded and we didn’t want to wait.
The food is good enough -- heavy on shrimp, fish, etc., which is what you would expect -- but a bit higher-priced than we pay for the same fare at our usual places back home. Hey, this is the Keys, so I consider it a surcharge for the atmosphere. Just around everywhere you sit you have some view of Florida Bay (the restaurant sits on the bayside of U.S. 1). The palms in this picture (above) were right in front of us.
Also, this is a tourist spot, so what should we expect?
There are many pelicans and sea gulls around. They seem to be used to people. The gull in this picture was resting on a railing just a couple of feet from the people at the table next to us. Pelicans flew overhead back and forth from a boat tied up across the way to the restaurant.
One of the reasons I liked where we bought our house nearly 20 years ago now was that it was relatively close to the Keys, but, as I mentioned earlier, we don’t get down there nearly enough, not as much as we once did.
It’s not as difficult or dangerous as it used to be because the stretch of U.S. 1 between Florida City and Key Largo has been widened  and there is a concrete barrier dividing the north and southbound lanes, which eliminates the chance of head-on collisions. There are a couple of spots for passing lanes if you get caught behind someone particularly slow.
Also, there is now a bridge that crosses high above Jewfish Creek just before you get to Key Largo, so that eliminates the need to use the old drawbridge that allows boats to pass through from the ocean side to the bay side of the islands at the north end of the Keys. Traffic used to back up rather quickly when the bridge was up, even on weekdays.
I’m thinking traffic probably still gets heavy on weekends, but we haven’t gone to the Keys on anything but a weekday in a long time, at least not since one Sunday years ago when we got caught in a line of traffic behind a fatal accident on our way back home.
As I said there is only one highway running the length of the Keys. There is the old original Keys Highway that runs parallel to it for stretches, but eventually you have to get back on the main road because that’s where the bridges are.
Of course, there are other locations for the Islamorada Fish Company, including one much closer to us near the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport.
I’ve been there a couple of times. It’s a nice enough place and, like all of the the IFC restaurants it is next door to a huge Bass Pro Shop. If you haven’t been in a Bass Pro Shop, it’s attraction in itself and a lot more than just fishing tackle and boats.
But take a look at these pictures and tell me if you would prefer the Islamorada Fish Company place near the airport or the one in the Keys.
I thought so. So would we.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I have mixed feelings about GM.
I don’t really like the fact that the company went to the government for a bailout a few years ago, but I also think the government had at least something to do with putting the company into the position where it had to go begging for financial relief. So there was some justification for it.
Still, there were other options. Even bankruptcy could have offered a way out for the company.  
On the plus side for GM, however, I see the company putting out some very good products these days across the line, and when it comes to “affordable” performance, it’s tough to beat.
There’s no question that the Chevrolet Corvette remains the iconic American sports car after more than half a century. And if you’re looking for American sports car panache in a slightly less expensive package and with a tad of practicality (need a backseat?), Chevy offers the Camaro.
They share one common characteristic. Forget about the refined luxury you find in European and Asian sports cars. Both the Corvette and the Camaro are about in-your-face brashness, power, and performance. I wouldn’t call their interiors crude or even spartan by any means, but refined luxury is not what they’re all about.
Especially the Corvette.
The moment you fire up the Corvette’s engine, the cabin becomes awash with testosterone.
How much testosterone depends on which 'Vette version you happen to be firing up, of course. The supercharged ZR1’s 6.2-liter V8 pumps out a whopping 638 horsepower and 604 pound-feet of torque. Numbers for the 7.0-liter V8 in the Z06 are 505 and 470, respectively.
But you get a lot of punch, too, in the base and GS (for Grand Sport) Corvettes and just as much fun. The 6.2-liter V8s in those models send 430 hp and 424 lb.-ft. of torque to the the rear wheels, slightly more in models with the optional exhausts.
Unless you're going racing, the base and Grand Sport coupes should satisfy your need for speed.
Both the ZR1 and the Z06 also require premium fuel which is consumed at a rate of 14 miles-per-gallon city, 21 highway for the former and 15/24 for the former.
According to the company, premium fuel is recommended but not required for the base and GS with the EPA numbers checking in at 15/25 when mated with a six-speed, paddle-shift automatic transmission and 16/26 with the six-speed manual.
My recommendation?
Use premium fuel anyway and go for the six-speed stick shift.
Driving the GS with the stick, I found the shifts rather smooth to make and not requiring the labor that I found when driving the
Dodge Viper around town.
While the Viper is wonderful on the track, it is a bear to handle on the street. I suspect it might be the same with the ZR1 and Z06 when it comes to the Corvette, but not so with the GS (or base, for that matter). There is a nice blending of street/track experience with the GS.
There are differences between the two. The GS and the base both have the same wheelbase (105.7 inches), but the GS is an inch longer in overall length at 175.6 inches. It's wider as well by about three inches at 75.9, an its overall height is slightly less at 48.7 inches. And the GS Coupe is more than 100 pounds heavier at 3,311 pounds curb weight.
The interior volume is the same for all of the Corvette models with the same legroom (43 inches), shoulder room (55), and headroom (38).

That, too, sets the Corvette apart from its foreign competitors, which generally check in at smaller sizes, and the overall size also adds to the bold, brash, masculine appearance inside and out as well. (A quick word here; I’m not saying women can’t drive this car. I’m just saying that you’re probably going to find more women in Miatas when it comes to sports cars than you are Corvettes. Nothing wrong with that. I like the agility of the Miata.)
Though cargo hauling is not exactly what most have in mind when it comes to the Corvette, the car does offer a pretty spacious 22 cubic feet when you lift the rear hatch.
As for cost, the base price of the GS I had was $55,,925. Add in extras like the special Centennial Edition package (which includes Carbon Flash Metallic paint, special graphics and wheels featuring the image of Gaston Chevrolet, and other features), the dual-mode exhaust, transparent removable roof cover, pedal covers, and the battery protection panel, not to mention the $975 destination and delivery fee, and the total cost came to $70,185.
Hmmm, did I say something about affordable?
The base model starts at under $50,000 and the Z06 at under $76,000. The ZR1 starts in six-figures territory at $112,600.
There are various trim levels and packages with each model as well.
A few words about the Camaro.
I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the Camaro when Chevy brought it back for the 2010 model year after a 10-year hiatus. It was a Muscle Car in every word, from looks to sound to performance, and that I like, but I just thought the venerable Ford Mustang was at the top of the class.
Frankly, I still do think that, but I am a bit more open to the virtues of the Camaro. Perhaps that is because I am over the fact that not once but twice the driver’s side door swung out of my hand and put door dings in my wife’s Passat wagon parked next to it.
Usually, when you open a car door, there is a slight catch at certain points to keep that from happening. That didn’t seem to be the case with the first Camaro I had, and, especially with the traditional wide doors on coupes, it was a problem. (I know, I know. If it happened once, shame on Chevy. If it happened twice, shame on me. But it still ticked me off, not to mention the $100 it cost me to get the dings out.)
But I have grown to appreciate the Camaro a bit more. The one I had late last year provided a good experience overall. A friend who was riding with me in it after a few minutes remarked, “You really enjoy this car, don’t you?” I had to admit I did.
The 6.2-liter V8 sent plenty of power (426 hp, 420 lb.-ft.) to the rear wheels of the 2012 2SS via a six-speed manual transmission, and the sound from the dual exhaust was the kind of deep, throaty bass that is so distinctive to the genre.
The cabin is nicely designed -- no longer is Chevy/GM putting out interiors that seem to be built around $1.98 worth of plastic -- and roomy enough upfront.
Drawbacks include a somewhat cramped rear seat and the contortions you have to put your body through to get back there. Visibility all-around isn’t the best either, though the rear-vision camera -- standard in some trim levels, optional in others -- mitigates that somewhat.
The trunk is about what you expect to find in a coupe with a capacity of 11.3 cubic feet, but the opening itself to get things in there is rather on the small side.
The 2SS model I drove, which did include the rear-vision camera and features like rear parking assist, power front seats, and satellite radio as standard, started at $35,450. The 45th anniversary package, which include specific hood and deck lid striping, badging, and 20-inch wheels (over the standard 18 an 19), ran the total cost to $37,725.
The 2SS model is the top of the Camaro line. You can get into a six-cylinder base Camaro starting at just over $23,000.
So do the Corvette and Camaro justify what the company -- and you and I as taxpayers -- went through to “save” the company? I guess so, but I still think it would have been better had the company explored other options. And if the company had been putting out products like this it might not have been in such a state in the first place.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


I don’t think there is any question that the Super Bowl, which will be played Sunday in Indianapolis when the New York Giants and New England Patriots square off in the indoor playground called Lucas Oil Stadium, has become America’s No. 1 sporting event.
At least with the public.
In a strange paradox, though, if you ask most sportswriters, covering the NFL championship gamel, no matter which teams are in it, the Super Bowl will be far down on their list of favorite events to cover.
I was reminded of this last month when I was given a copy of a Vanderbilt University alumni magazine and in it was a panel discussion featuring several Vandy alums who are now recognizable names among sports media. (There are more than you might think for a school known for its engineering department and high academic standards).
Buster Olney, who does a very good job covering baseball for ESPN, was among them. The others I didn’t really recognize, but for the record they were Dave Sheinin, a national baseball writer at the Washington Post; Mark Bechtel and Lee Jenkins with Sports Illustrated; Tyler Kepner, a baseball writer with the New York Times; and Clay Travis, a columnist for FanHouse who also hosts a daily radio show in Nashville.
Asked what sports event was overly hyped and they all answered the Super Bowl.
“The run-up to it is just mind numbing,” Olney said. “Some people don’t get baseball; I’m like that with the Super Bowl. I don’t want to hear anything about it for two weeks beforehand. When the game comes, I’m excited, but the two weeks leading up to it drive me nuts.”
Travis hit it just right.
“Tons of people watch the Super Bowl who have no idea what’s going on,” he said. “Millions of people are watching who didn’t care about any of the four teams that were playing two weeks earlier.
Of course, you may have noticed the baseball influence in the job descriptions of the group.
Could that be coloring their opinions?
Maybe, but I don’t think so.
Many years ago when I was a bit more active in sportswriting than I am now and traveling to attend various events, like the Super Bowl, I did a sampling of various national writers at the Masters asking them what their favorite event was.
Since we were at Augusta at the time, many mentioned it as their favorite. A couple picked the World Series. The NCAA’s Basketball Tournament and Final Four also got support. Nobody, if I recall correctly, chose the Super Bowl.
One of the main reasons was all the buildup and over-analysis that is done in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. It does and on and on and on, becoming repetitive after about one day. Or one hour.
Meanwhile, both the World Series and the Masters have built-in drama with different things happening every day that impact on the next day’s story.
Masters week starts on Monday after the conclusion of the previous week’s golf tournament on Sunday. You have a couple of days to talk to the likely contenders, who all pretty much have more interesting things to say than anybody on either of the two Super Bowl teams.
On Wednesday you have the Par 3 tournament, which is kind of a fun, relaxing afternoon, and then the real thing starts on a Thursday. Every day from there through Sunday evening things are happening every day with new contenders emerging and favorites dropping out of contention seemingly every couple of hours.
Same thing with the World Series.
In the days leading up to the Series, you have the league championship series going on to determine exactly which two teams are going to be in the event. Then, once the Series, starts you have the drama of the games going on every day (except for the breaks when the teams swap ballparks). You never know when a new hero (Hello, David Freese.)
Of course, not every game is going to be as dramatic as last fall’s Game 6, which was one of the greatest in baseball history, and you can even have a four-game sweep which takes a lot of the mystery out of it. Even then, though, new heroes and goats are going to emerge.
The Super Bowl, meanwhile, rarely comes even close to living up to its hype. And even when it does, the hype itself has taken away much of its appeal. Often, it’s up to the cheese dip to save the day.
Of course, I’ll be watching when the Giants beat the Patriots. If I didn’t, I’d have to turn in my Man Card. But if you told me I could only pick one, I’d go with the NCAA tournament.