Saturday, March 31, 2012


The semifinals of the NCAA basketball tournament are today.
Hard to believe the season has gone this fast. (I think that every year now.)
Though I kind of like the first weekend of the tournament better because of its potential for upsets (Lehigh over Duke, Norfolk State over Missouri this year), I had a friend who once said his favorite day was the first day of the Final Four. He thought it was more fun than the championship game that comes two nights later.
The coaches and players for all four teams are really jacked up, and the electricity from their fans fills the arena an energy that is hard to match. And they all enter the building with hope.
Plus, the semifinal games are usually -- but not always -- better than the final. Just the enormity of what is at stake on Monday night often affects play in in the championship game. Holy cow! We’re here! Now that do we do? Let’s not screw it up!
Shooting can be off -- even Larry Bird had an mediocre night shooting (7-of-21) when his Indiana State team lost to Michigan State in 1979 -- and the teams can be tentative in the early going because they have had only one day to prepare for their opponent. Connecticut and Butler combined to shoot only 26.1 percent from the field last year. (In case you were wondering, anything under 43 percent is below average these days.)
It doesn’t always turn out this way, but it happens.
In the semifinals, the teams have had a week to get ready, and the result is a matchup of two well-prepared teams. They’re well-prepared because although not all the Final Four coaches are among the all-time greats, they’re all pretty good in their own way.
So I think my friend had a good point.
The first of today’s semifinals is particularly appealing to me. I used to live in Kentucky and think I may be one of the few sportswriters who actually had both Kentucky and Louisville as my beats.
My second year in Louisville, I got the assignment from the Courier-Journal to cover the Cardinals. Denny Crum was the coach, only a few years removed from his time as an assistant under John Wooden at UCLA. The second year I covered them, the Cardinals made it to the Final Four. Also there in San Diego was Kentucky.
Joe B. Hall was the coach of the Wildcats and had the line of the tournament. When Wooden announced his retirement after the win over Louisville, Hall, who had succeeded the legendary Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, was asked whom he would recommend for the job.
“Me,” Joe said. “Why ruin two lives?”
Alas. The two teams, who had not met each other since 1979, didn’t get the chance to play each other that year. Louisville lost to UCLA in the semifinals. Kentucky beat Syracuse in the semis, then lost to UCLA in the championship game.
After one more year with the Cardinals, I was moved to the Kentucky beat for the 1976-77 season. This meant driving back and forth from Louisville to Lexington, about a 70-mile trip, a couple of times or so a week (games and a handful of practices), but it wasn’t a bad drive.
The interstate ran only from Louisville to Frankfort at the time, so it meant completing the second half of the journey on U.S. 60.
The part from Versailles (which in Kentucky is pronounced Ver-sales) to Lexington is an especially beautiful drive with the road taking you past horse farms like Calumet Farm as you arrive in Lexington.
In my second year, when the interstate was completed, we sometimes would get off before going all the way to Lexington and take one of the back roads into the town. That would take us on the backside of the farms, just as pretty.
By the time the two teams met in the NCAA tournament in a regional final in 1983, I had left Kentucky and moved on to Jackson. But as sports editor, I managed to finagle the assignment to cover that regional. A very good Arkansas team almost upset Louisville in the semis, and Indiana gave Kentucky a good fight as well.

But both the Cardinals and Wildcats managed to win, and that set up a classic regional final that Louisville won in overtime. Louisville went on to lose to Houston in the Final Four the next week, but no matter. The game with Kentucky led to the establishment of the regular-season series that exists between the two teams today.
The Wildcats and Cardinals would meet again in the NCAA tourney in 1984 with Kentucky winning a regional semifinal game on its home court. (Yes, back then teams were permitted to play at home because the feeling at the time was if the NCAA didn’t allow it, no school, or not many, would apply to host a regional because of all the work involved with no advantage gained.)
But this is the first time the two teams have played in the NCAA tourney since then, and the first time they have met in the Final Four.
I’m thinking Kentucky is going to win, which doesn’t exactly put me in an exclusive group of prognosticators, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Louisville pulled it out.
Either way, it’s going to be an interesting and entertaining game to watch. I’m wondering how much camera time Louisville coach Rick Pitino and Kentucky coach John Calipari are going to get. I bet it’s a lot.
Oh, yeah. In the second game, Kansas takes on Ohio State.
I don’t like Ohio State. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta is probably a nice guy, but looks like a weasel, kind of like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski looks like a ferret. Good coaches, though.
Kansas coach Bill Self looks like someone I wouldn’t mind having a beer with, providing he’s buying. But then, the list of people I’ll have a beer with on their dime (dollars) is not an exclusive group either.

Friday, March 23, 2012


You are probably familiar with the old saying that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Maybe you haven’t heard this one, though.
“Don’t be over self-confident with your first impression of people.”
According to a website I ran across, that is an old Chinese saying. But I’m not really sure about it because I have yet to run across that or anything like it in a fortune cookie. Still, if it’s on the Internet, it must be true, right?
What am I getting at here?
Simply this: Don’t let your first impression of a new car be your last.
For instance, when I looked at the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic sitting in my driveway, I resigned myself to a week of the kind of drive and ride that would be dear to a Sierra Club member’s heart but also be boring and pedestrian.
Turns out I was wrong.
Equipped with a manual transmission and a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the Sonic gave me unexpected fun behind the wheel.

No, there wasn’t neck-snapping acceleration or sports car-like maneuverability on tight turns, but it’s stay with me was far from a dull seven days.
Considering the past failures of many automakers, especially domestic manufacturers, to produce subcompacts with a little life and fun in them, the Sonic is a triumph. (No pun intended for those of you who may be fans of old British roadsters from the 1950s and early ’60s.)
I hasten to add there that I had the turbo version, which is available in the LT and LTZ trims and boosts torque to 148 pound-feet, or 23 more than you’ll get in the 1.8 I-4 normally aspirated engine that comes in the base LS.
Though both engines are rated at 138 horsepower, that extra torque in such a small vehicle does make a difference in throttle response from a dead stop.
The top-of-the-line LTZ with the optional turbo engine is going to cost a bit more -- the LTZ hatchback starts at just over $18,000, the sedan at just over $17,000 with both about $3,000 more than the base LS -- but I think it’s worth it. I can think of nothing duller in driving experience than a non-turbo four-banger with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The fuel economy also is better in the turbo, which is rated at 29 mpg city, 40 highway to the 26/24 stick, 25/35 manual in the non-turbo. At today’s gas prices, it isn’t going to take you as long to make up for that extra money you’ll have to put down upfront for the turbo.
Going beyond the engine, the Sonic’s styling fits in with most of its competition. This particular genre is not something that particularly appeals to me, but then I’m not the generation Chevy is aiming at with this car. Long past it, in fact.
It goes have a couple of features that I found interesting. The way the rear door handles are molded into the rear pillar makes for a smooth, virtually uninterrupted flow from on the sides from front fenders to rear, and interior controls on the center stack are uncomplicated and easy to operate.
Click to enlarge.
I have found that some manufacturers, in an apparent appeal to the potential Gen-X and Gen-Y buyers, like to make the radio operate on miniature buttons to do things like change a radio station manually or switch from AM to FM. I didn’t know the younger generation was growing up with such tiny fingers. Pity those in cold climes who have to wear winter gloves.
You will notice from the picture, too, the knobs near the bottom of the stack for operating the A/C. Pure genius in simplicity!
The front seat is roomy and comfortable enough, and backseat passengers get decent legroom as well. Lower that backseat and cargo space in the hatchback jumps from 19.7 cubic feet to 30.7, which isn’t as much as some of its competitors offer but still isn’t bad. Trunk space in the sedan, on the other hand, is 14 cubic feet, which is pretty close to what you get in the larger Chevy Cruze sedan.
Bottom line: The Sonic isn’t something that is going to appeal to a lot of buyers, but for those shopping in the subcompact segment, it’s a big improvement over past efforts from Chevy. And many others, for that matter.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Recently a friend and I were cruising around South Florida in yet another new hybrid that was hitting the market. (See “A is for Apple, C is for City” in my blog listings).
The usual procedure at these events is for one person to drive and the passenger to “navigate” by reading off the turn-by-turn instructions provided by the sponsor. Sounds simple, but it still isn’t unusual to miss and turn and get completely lost. At least for me it’s not.
In this particular instance, there was no danger of that. We really weren’t following instructions because we knew exactly where we were, Russ having lived in the area for a nearby of years and the magazine where both of his had once worked being not far away.
Not having to follow a map and guidebook thus gave me time to rag on Russ about how “efficiently” he was driving, which is to say, not very. During our pre-drive briefing we had been shown how a screen in the dash could tell us how we were doing as far as getting the most gas mileage out of the vehicle.

Russ was getting only three bars out of a possible five.
“To hell with it,” he said, or something like that.
After a few minutes watching the screen proved monotonous, and my mind began to wander to other things, as it often tends to do.
Hey! What do you think about the NCAA tournament?
Wait. Where was I?
Oh, yes. I was riding with Russ.
“You know,” I said at one point, “I feel sorry for future generations. I mean, this is a nice, fuel efficient car and gets you from Point A to Point B” -- in this case Point A to B to C to D to E and beyond -- “but it’s not very high in the fun-to-drive category.
“Not like say, that Camaro SS I had recently.”
“Well, get used to it,” Russ said, “because this is what we’re going to be driving in the future. The government’s going to see to it for that.”
Fortunately for car lovers, especially those aficionados of Muscle Cars, those days are still a ways off in the future and the further off the better, I think.
In an odd, and fortunate, coincidence of timing, a couple of weeks later I found myself behind the wheel of a Dodge Challenge SRT8 392. Oh, what fun!
This was not the first time I had had the opportunity to drive this behemoth. The first was a few months ago at the Rides-n-Smiles event sponsored by our media organization, the Southern Automotive Media Association. I was able to drive the Challenger around the road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway under track, but not race, conditions, giving children from cancer support groups and their families from Baptist Children’s Hospital rides around the course.
It was a remarkable performer.
Even though I originally was disappointed when I found it had a six-speed automatic transmission and not a manual, I soon came to love the paddle-shifting on the track with the automatic. I must confess if for some reason I missed an upshift, the car took car of that automatically for me.
So I had a lot of fun with it, and from the smiles on the children’s faces, they did as well.
Having it for a week under street conditions simply re-affirmed that good first impression.
The Challenger SRT8 delivered to my driveway was a different color scheme from the one I had at Homestead but alike in every other way with the same automatic transmission mated to the standard 6.4-liter HEMI V8 engine.
HEMI could be construed as some loose translation of “brute” because that’s what the Challenger SRT8’s power plant is, a real brute that pumps out 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque to its 20-inch rear wheels. (I don’t know why I wrote it that way. Makes it sound as if the ones up front may be different sized. They’re not. They are 20-inches as well.)
Getting behind the wheel, I soon was back using the paddle shifters driving around city streets just as I had done on the track, which is not what I usually do when offered the opportunity to use the steering wheel-mounted paddles in town.
A waste of time, usually, but it just seemed like the natural thing to do in the SRT8. Placing my hands on the hefty steering wheel -- I loved the way it felt -- at the 10-2 position put my fingertips right at the paddles (left paddle downshift, right paddle upshift).
And if I pulled up to a complete stop, the transmission automatically went into first gear, which took away some of the work. Usually I prefer the car not to do that but to stay in whatever gear I have selected, even if that means a couple of extra flicks with the left paddle to get it down from third to first when I stop. But I was even willing to let the Challenger do that work.
Of course, there are plenty of other performance-oriented coupes and sedans out there. What gives the Challenger its special place is its styling. Well, that and the heart-pumping, solid bass sounds emanating from the dual exhausts. At the Homestead event, I kept the windows lowered to get the full effect of all that power to the children. From their reactions, I think they liked it. (I did, too.)
The Challenger’s exterior is very much line with the original 1970s Mopar icon with its wide, muscular stance, simple color scheme with racing stripes down the middle, and functional hood scoops.
Dodge lists the seating capacity as 2/3 front and back, though it might get a bit crowded in the back with two full-size adults. Also, it’s not all that easy to squeeze through the tilted front seats to get back there no matter what size you are.
As a driver, you sit in a nice position with all the basic controls within easy reach. Nothing complicated to figure out there either, just basic controls for audio, A/C, and all. The one problem is that your view to the rear isn’t the best because of the thick rear roof pillars that could, at the right angle, block the sun.
But the ride for the passengers is as comfortable as the handling is fun for the driver. The SRT8 is a race-capable car that is just as at home in everyday situations as it is on race weekends. (For the record, you can milder versions of the Challenger with all its looks but not the horses for around $25,000, or about $19,000 under the SRT8’s MSRP.)
The bottom line here is that although I won’t argue with those who might be horrified at the 14 mpg city, 23 highway fuel economy ratings (with premium fuel recommended) and argue that more more efficient vehicles, such as electrics, are our future, it’s still good to there is still room for American Muscle i the form of the Dodge Challenger SRT8, Chevy Camaro SS or Ford Mustang/Shelby GT5000.
At least for today.

Friday, March 9, 2012


I don’t remember exactly when I first heard that Nissan was making a convertible version of is Murano crossover SUV.
But I do recall my first thought.
“ A convertible SUV? How in hell does that work?”
Turns out the answer to that question is that it works very well.
In fact, members of our automotive media group, the Southern Automotive Media Association, rated the Murano CrossCabriolet as the best family convertible at its inaugural “Topless in Miami” convertible competition last June. (For more information, you can visit Don’t worry. The site is all about cars and safe for work.)
The word “family” should be your first clue as to the size of the Murano CrossCabriolet. As you might deduce, it has a big cabin that provides lots of room front and back. By most convertible standards, the back could be called huge, and it’s not that big a chore to get back there.
It’s easier with the top down, of course, and rolling down the rear windows helps when the top is up. But you don’t have to be a contortionist.
The CrossCabriolet also offers a substantial amount of storage for a convertible with a trunk offering 12.3 cubic feet of cargo space, which is competitive with many sedans.
No, of course, it’s not as much stowage as you will find in the standard Murano (31.8 cubic feet with the second-row seats upright and 64.5 with them down), and I should mention something here about that.
If you take a close look at the photo here of the CrossCabriolet with the top up, you will notice that the soft top does not mirror the profile of the standard SUV. There is not the big liftgate at the rear with open storage behind the back seat.
To do that, designers likely would have had the top retract along rails and fold up at the back, kind of like the Fiat 500C. (You can check the pictures on one of my earlier blogs at and you’ll see what I mean.)
But Nissan engineers didn’t do that, perhaps because it just doesn’t work out because of the physics involved or just because they wanted the more open-air driving experience that having a fully retractable canvass top provides for the Murano CrossCabriolet.
But other than no rear liftgate and only two doors, this is very much a Murano.
It comes with a 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to a CVT (continuously variable transmission) tuned to 265 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, slightly more than the 260 and 240, respectively, in the standard Murano.
Fuel economy is rated at 17 miles-per-gallon city, 22 highway in the CrossCabriolet, about the same as the all-wheel-drive version of the Murano’s 18/23. (The CrossCabriolet is offered only in AWD configuration.)
Other than seating for four instead of five, the CrossCabriolet’s interior is the same as the standard Murano with the dash and controls identical. I found the seats comfortable, and the driving position is nice and high. Quality of materials in the cabin is of the best.
The wheelbase (111.2 inches) is the same on both the CrossCabriolet and the standard Murano, though at 190.1 inches and 74.5 inches the CrossCabriolet is a couple of ticks longer and wider, respectively. With the top up, the CrossCabriolet is 66.2 inches tall, the regular Murano 68.
The CrossCabriolet rides on 20-inch wheels as standard, which is the same as those on the high-end LE trim level in the Murano.
The CrossCabriolet doesn’t have a lot of options that can be tacked on, so the final cost isn’t likely to go much higher than the base $45,390 (including destination and delivery). The version I drove had an optional navigation system, upgraded leather interior, and floor mats that ran the total price to $47,890.
A base Murano that keeps its top on (what’s the fun in that?) starts at just over $30,000 including D&D. The top-of-the-line LE Murano with AWD is around $41,000 counting D&D charges.
And they always seem to do count those charges.
So if you are one who had to give up the sportiness and fun of driving al fresco (or au natural) because of your growing family, perhaps the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet is your solution. It’s not quite the oddball I first thought it would be.

Friday, March 2, 2012


I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “Well, I’d like to buy a Prius, but it’s just so darned big.”
But Toyota says it did because the latest Prius model on the market is -- ta da! -- smaller than its predecessors.
It’s called the Prius c, with the “c” standing for “city.”
I got the opportunity to hear company people list its virtues and then drive it for a bit at a special media preview last week in Delray Beach.
We stayed at the Seagate Hotel and Spa a couple of blocks from A1A, which runs in fits and starts along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Skies were sunny and temperatures in the low 80s. Yes, it’s such a tough life.
I should point out here that the Prius c is not so radically small that it is comparable to, say, the company’s Scion IQ, which is of the bloated golf cart ilk. At 157.3 inches long, the Prius c is only about 19 inches shorter than its older brother, the familiar Prius Liftback.
When my friend and former colleague at the magazine Russ and I went to lay claim to one for the morning drive we first picked out the Prius Liftback the event sponsors had provided for comparison purposes.
Once straightened out, Russ and I spent an hour or two meandering through Palm Beach County, visiting such historical spots such as Russ’ former home in Boynton Beach and a friend’s place that had served as party headquarters. Still does, in fact, when he gets back for visits.
In what has to be an inexcusable oversight, the local historical society has failed to mark either site with appropriate plaques.
I once saw a video that had as its title “How to Drive a Hybrid,” but as far as I am concerned, there is no real secret. You do pretty much what you do in any car you want to save on gas -- go light on the pedal and lift your foot well in advance of red lights, braking gently.
This probably explains why the indicator in the dash showed that neither Russ nor I was getting optimum fuel-saving performance out of the Prius c, which is supposed to deliver 53 miles per gallon in the city and 46 on the highway
Ed Le Rocque, who carries with him the title of National Brand Manager; Advanced Passenger Cars for Toyota Motor Sales (TMS), U.S.A., Inc. (he must get tired lugging that around), said during the presentation that the Prius c was intended for “for young singles and couples who appreciate a vehicle with responsive handling that is easy to park.”
“Young singles and couples” is not exactly a demographic that either Russ or I fit, and a glance around confirmed that not many, maybe one or two at the most, of the others in the room would fit either, but what are you going to do?
The Prius c does come packed with a lot of gee-whiz technological features that will appeal to the younger generation buyers it is targeting, but the only one Russ and I checked out was the Satellite Radio.
The Prius c comes in four trim levels dubbed Prius c One, Two, Three, and Four. Apparently, the people in Toyota’s creative names department went out to celebrate after coming up with “c for city.” The starting price is $18,950 for the One, $19,900 for the Two, $21,635 for the Three, and $23,230 for the Four.
They are due to begin arriving in showrooms sometime this month.