Friday, May 25, 2012


A news item caught my eye late yesterday, and I have a protest to register.
Inrix, a company that bills itself as “the global leader in traffic information and services,” has come out with a list of the Top Ten cities for the worst traffic in the country, and Miami isn’t on it.
How can that be?
Miami, the city where Dave Barry once wrote that “it is customary for everyone to drive according to laws of his or her country of origin.” (And we have many people in South Florida from many countries, including even the United States.)
According to Inrix, though, the city with the worst traffic congestion in 2011 was Honolulu.
I thought everybody there got around town on a surfboard. Cowabunga!
Inrix, however, reports that a driver in Hawaii’s largest city wastes 58 hours a year fighting traffic congestion. (Your mileage may vary.)
A lousy 58 hours?
I sometimes think I do that in one week driving around South Florida’s streets and expressways, especially when it is raining. I don’t know what it is about people who live in South Florida but it seems like every time we get a shower -- which is often this time of year (a heads-up for you tourists) -- everybody takes that as a sign to jump into their cars and go for a drive.
Preferably during rush hour on an expressway and with their hazard lights flashing. (Instead of hazard lights, some simply leave the left turn signal blinking. Always the left one. Nobody here uses the right one, even when making a right turn.)
The fleet manager who provides me with new cars to drive every week has come to putting a bottle of water in each vehicle. I used to think he was just being nice. Now I see it’s like the canteen the camel driver gives you before you cross the Sahara. That bottle of water is a precaution to keep me from dying of thirst whilst stuck on the Palmetto Expressway.
But Inrix doesn’t even include us on the Top Ten.
You can read the report itself at the company’s website,, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When you click on the right place on the home page, a lot of charts and graphs are available, but I didn’t have much better luck deciphering them than I did making it through that statistics class I took at IU back in 1962. (I may be able to figure out earned run averages, but that class went a little deeper.)
The pertinent information is the list of the Top Ten cities. Following Honolulu are Los Angeles (big surprise), San Francisco, New York, Bridgeport, Conn. (who knew?),
Washington, D.C. (that I can believe), Seattle, Austin, Texas, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Actually, that’s a Top Eleven. No, Philly is not tied with Chicago. My only explanation is someone at Inrix doesn’t like Philly and wanted to make sure it was included.
As for those of us in South Florida, well, Miami may not have made the Top Ten worst cities for congestion, but a stretch of expressway that runs along the south edge of Miami International Airport ranks as the 13th most congested corridor. That’s “up,” if that is the proper word, from No. 42 in the 2010 rankings.
I take that as a sign we are headed for No. 1.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


If you are following the NBA playoffs, and even if you aren’t, and live outside South Florida, you probably are rooting against the Miami Heat.
You rooted against the Heat in the opening round when it dispatched the New York Knicks in five games, and now you are hoping against hope that the Pacers will somehow rally to win Games 6 and 7 of the current series.
Frankly, it’s not going to happen. After a rather desultory start to the series, the Heat now is paying attention, and the Pacers are ailing. I’m not saying the Pacers can’t send the series back to Miami for a Game 7 by winning Thursday night, but I am saying  the Pacers won’t get the two wins they need to capture the series.
Not that that will matter to Heat-haters. They don’t care who beats the Heat as long as it’s somebody, which could turn out to be the Celtics, who lead their Eastern Conference semifinal 3-2 going into tonight’s game at Philadelphia, or it could be whichever team comes out of the West -- the San  Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This animosity toward the Heat goes back to the summer day in 2010 when LeBron James announced he was “taking his talents to South Beach” after spending seven years in Cleveland. That and the fact that fellow free agent signee Chris Bosh and current Heat star Dwyane Wade then went on an American Idol-like spree promising to bring six or seven titles to Miami.
It was unseemly behavior, at best. At worst, it was simply classless.
So the hate toward the Heat goes back a while.
Still, you’d have to think the flames of that passion have been fanned even more with the way things went down in Tuesday night’s game.
Early on, the Pacers’ Tyler Hansbrough was called for a  flagrant foul against Wade. Hansbrough, who wasn’t known for his finesse in his college days at North Carolina, started out fine with his attempted block of Wade’s layup, but then he came down hard on the Heat superstar, striking him on the head and giving him a cut over his eye.
That, of course, called for retaliation on the part of the Heat, and Udonis Haslem provided it when he ignored any attempt at a legitimate defensive play and simply came down hard with both arms at Hansbrough’s head as Hansbrough went up for a layup.
Then, during mop-up time in the 32-point Heat rout, Dexter Pittman leveled the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson with a brutal elbow as Stephenson raced to the boards for a potential rebound. It was a vicious play that easily could have had more series consequences, but Stephenson seems all right now.
Surprisingly, the officials did not eject Pittman, or Haslem for that matter, which would seem to have been the proper call.
Two plays, more fuel for the Heat-haters. 
As physical as the Pacers’ own approach to the series has been, the Heat still very much remain the bad guys. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

I once worked for an editor who banned the use of the term “crossover utility vehicle” in our magazine.
He had a point in that “crossover utility” is pretty much a made-up marketing term that allows manufacturers from labels like “station wagon” or hatchback or event “sports utility,” which is a favorite target of environmentalists.
But marketing term or not, “crossover utility” has become a pretty much accepted term today to describe a vehicle that has the looks of an SUV but is built on a typical car platform featuring unibody construction and independent rear suspension for a smoother, more livelier ride than truck-based SUVs typically deliver.
Like Infiniti’s FX35.
The luxury component of the Japanese automaker Nissan introduced the FX models in 2003 in two versions, the FX35 with a 3.5-liter V6 under the hood and the FX45 with a 4.5-liter V8.
The FX45 has since grown to become the FX50 with a 5.0-liter V8 powerplant, but the FX35 has stayed with the 3.5-liter V6.
The company did give both a redesign in 2009, and there aren’t a lot of changes for the 2012 model year overall -- a new front grille and front fascia design are two -- but the company did add a new trim level with the introduction of the FX35 Limited Edition.
It features all-wheel drive (also standard on the FX50) over the front-wheel configuration in the base model and has 21-inch wheels as standard over the 18 (standard) and 20 (optional) on the base model.
It also has as standard all the features found in the Premium Package -- optional for the base FX35 -- including navigation, an “around view” monitor, voice recognition for audio and navigation, Zagat Survey Restaurant Guide, and more.
That comes at a cost, of course. The base FX35 with FWD starts at $43,700 and with AWD at $45,150. The AWD Limited Edition starts at an even $52,000.
Both, however, are comfortably under the FX50’s starting price of $59,800.
Possibly the biggest thing the FX has going for it is that it uses the same underpinnings as that found on the company’s popular G37, one of the most enjoyable sport sedans on the market today.
Combine that with the 303 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque the V6 delivers, plus a seven-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection capability (instead of the CVT Nissan has become enamored with), and you have a vehicle that provides an A-1 driving experience, such as the one we recently enjoyed in the FX35 Limited.
Our time in the car included a weekend roundtrip covering nearly 600 miles, and the ride was more than pleasant. Though some critics see the tighter suspension as detracting from the overall comfort, that wasn’t the case with us.
And the power in the V6 is adequate for most tastes. Passing slower vehicles on two-lane stretches of road was accomplished with ease, though the increased engine revs when the accelerator was floored did cause some consternation with my passenger.
With a gas tank that holds nearly 24 gallons and with us matching the mileage figures shown on the sticker (16 mpg city, 21 highway), we needed only one fuel stop over the three days. The only downer is that premium fuel is required, but hey! If you’re going to buy a vehicle that runs you $50,000 or so, why quibble about an extra 20 cents or quarter a gallon?
The designers have done a nice job of making the technology easy to operate. There are buttons and knobs to operate the radio and climate control, and some features are operated off the navigation screen. You also can program in the proper settings to get information about the car, such as tire pressure, updated fuel mileage, etc., from readings on the screen.
The cabin has the customary leather, wood, and soft-to-the-touch materials you expect from this class, and the seats are comfortable for the long haul. I would liked to have been able to adjust the lumbar support on the driver’s seat just a tad more, but that’s not a big point. Legroom in the back, however, is a bit on the tight side, especially for taller passengers.
Stowage space, even with the rear seats folded, is not as great as some of its competitors either, but is adequate for most routine chores. This isn’t a cargo hauler, after all. And the FX does not offer third-row seating, which is a feature Infiniti is offering in its new 2013 JX crossover.
Despite the crossover utility label, the FX is more about style, performance, and technology than it is about utility. In those categories, it deserves high marks.
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE FX35 Limited: The 360-degree camera gives you a look all around the vehicle to ease maneuvering in tight spots. When the car is in reverse, the camera automatically provides the view out the back. When the car is in park/drive/neutral, you can also get a view out the front by pushing the “camera” button. Why would you need a camera when you can look out the windshield? Well, if, say, a kid’s bicycle was lying in front of you, you probably couldn’t see it over the hood. The camera could save you from the headache of running over it. Other views allow you to check to see if you are properly aligned in a parking space or of there is a small object to your side that you could hit while making a sharp turn.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT THE FX35 Limited: Not a whole lot to dislike, really. It would be nice to have an electronic parking brake and simply be able to push a button to set it rather than have to press the foot lever on the driver’s left side. Several luxury models are going in that direction. Though not having that feature wouldn’t be a deal breaker, it might behoove Infiniti to look into it. Like keyless start, it is rapidly becoming an expected item in this class.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

2012 TOYOTA YARIS: Beware of sticker shock!

Sticker shock is defined as the feeling of dismay or surprise one gets when learning the high price of an item being offered for sale.
It is often associated with automobiles because it is thought the origination of the term goes back to the 1970s when the price of cars began jumping because of increased government regulation.
Also, the prices of motor vehicles, along with other information, appears on big window stickers called Monroneys, after Sen. Mike Monroney, who sponsored the bill that mandated the disclosure of such information.
An example of sticker shock is the reaction you may have (as I did) if you look at the bottom line of the Monroney for the 2012 Toyota Yaris: $18,234.
What happened to that inexpensive little hatchback that took the place of the subcompact Echo, which was priced even below the popular Corolla, itself a fairly economical family sedan?
When it hit showrooms as a 2007 model, the most expensive Yaris model still came in well under $14,000, which put it in the same price range as the Echo it replaced in the Japanese automaker’s portfolio.
But things have changed. Like the Echo, the Yaris was slightly less than a hit when it was first introduced, but the weaknesses weren’t fatal. They could be fixed, and Toyota has seen to that for 2012.
But the increased cargo capacity, a result of nearly three additional inches in length, suspension tweaks to improve the ride, and the overall upgrades to its appearance both inside and out have come at a cost.
Now the top-of-the-line SE carries a base price of $17,200. A couple of dealer-installed options and floor mats took our test vehicle up to an $18,234 price tag.
It is a much better car than its predecessor and also a big leap in improvement over its predecessor, the Echo. The Yaris is a lot more pleasing to the eye than the Echo, which was so nerdy that Fox Searchlight Pictures chose it for star Robin Williams to drive in his role as a troubled, slightly psychotic lab technician in the film One Hour Photo. Now there was a little bit of product placement that I’m not sure Toyota appreciated.
That wouldn’t necessarily happen with the Yaris.
The fully redesigned Yaris. which comes only in hatchback form now, the sedan having been abandoned, fits in very well with the style of vehicle that appeals to the Gen-X and Gen-Y audiences.

It comes in three trim levels, all with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine puts out only 106 horsepower and 103 pound-feet of torque. The result is considerable engine noise when pushed to the limit, but at least it does respond to pedal pressure, and the overall handling is pretty solid.
The payoff for the meager horsepower is in mileage figures of 30 mpg city, 35 highway when equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission, 30/38 with a five-speed manual.
Those figures are better than what a similarly priced Scion xD Hatchback delivers with a 1.8-liter four-banger under the hood, though the xD somewhat makes up for its 27/33 fuel mileage numbers with a bit more power (128 hp).
Frankly, neither are going to wow you with power.
But that’s not what they’re all about anyway. What the Yaris gives you is a pretty good fuel-sipper that is a real car, not a bloated golf cart or chopped off bubble car with no backseat or storage that environmental radicals would like us all to drive.
Whether it is worth the price tag is another matter. Even the cheapest of the three Yaris models starts at $14,115, which, as noted earlier, is over $1,000 what Toyota was asking for the most expensive Yaris Hatchback just two years ago.
That’s sticker shock for you.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE YARIS: Because of its size, the Yaris is good for high-traffic urban areas, and it’s easy to park and maneuver in tight spots.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT THE YARIS: Even though the Yaris has been upgraded from last year, the sticker price is a bit much for this particular vehicle.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Dodge gives Charger a bit of a makeover

Even if you haven’t seen the movie, chances are you know about the car chase scene from Bullitt and maybe have even seen it via YouTube.
At one time, the entire sequence of nearly ten minutes was available on YouTube, but a recent Google search reveals that Warner Brothers has squashed those showings over copyright issues.
The movie was made in 1968 but the chase remains a timeless movie classic. It is the gold standard of all chase scenes.
Even if you aren’t a movie (or auto) trivia buff, you probably know that the car star Steve McQueen was driving in that chase was a Ford Mustang fastback.
But what about the car the bad guys were in?
That’s a bit more difficult, no?
Well, maybe not for you, a car buff, but for the average person, who likely remembers McQueen and Mustang but little else from the movie, it likely is.
As a public service then, here’s the answer: the Dodge Charger.

Of course, it was a much different Charger that did the chasing around the streets of San Francisco from the one you’ll find in showrooms today.
Back then, the Charger was a sleek two-door with a fastback profile that not only had a prominent, if less well-known, role in Bullitt but also had the lead vehicle part as General Lee in the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard.
That line of Chargers ended in the late 1980s.
When Dodge revived the nameplate in 2006 after a 19-year production hiatus, the Charger had morphed into a four-door sedan with the rear-wheel drive configuration and its aggressive styling retained from the 1960s model.
It also has the original’s DNA under the hood. Still does.
For 2012, Dodge offers the Charger in five trim levels with three different engines.
The base SE ($25,495) and upgraded SXT ($28,495) get a 3.6-liter V6 that puts out 292 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.
They also are the most fuel efficient in the line with the SE, which is equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission, getting 16 miles per gallon city and 25 highway and the SXT rated at 19 mpg city, 31 highway thanks to its eight-speed automatic.
The R/T ($29,995) has a 5.7 liter V8 rated at 370 hp and 395 lb.-ft. of torque. Mated with a five-speed automatic it is rated at 16 mpg city, 25 highway in fuel efficiency.
For the highest performance, there are the Charger SRT8 ($45,795) and the SRT8 Superbee ($41,495), the latter essentially the same as the SRT8 without some of the SRT8’s upgraded features such adaptive suspension, xenon headlights, shift paddles, etc.
Both the SRT8 and the SRT8 Superbee come with a 6.4-liter HEMI V8 that makes 470 hp and 470 lb.-ft. of torque. With a five-speed automatic transmission, they deliver mileage figures of 14/23 and a zero-to-60 time of under five seconds.
That’s the kind of stuff you would expect from stars of car chases. (In fact, for Bullitt, the moviemaking people had to modify the Mustang somewhat so that it could keep up with the HEMI-powered Charger.)
That kind of punch is what really makes the new Charger more true to its Muscle Car heritage, though one needn’t be ashamed of opting for the V6 with its break in price and increase in fuel economy. It’s no laggard in itself.
By going with a sedan configuration when it was revived (the Challenger serves as a coupe option for Mopar addicts and is priced along similar lines), Dodge has made the Charger more spacious inside, and the trunk is a roomy 15.5 cubic feet. The slanting roofline does take away from some of the rear headroom, but not a lot, and the legroom makes for a comfortable fit in the backseat.
The big plus is that the Charger has benefited from Dodge’s new emphasis on upgraded interiors. At one time, Dodge’s interiors were like an introduction to the world of plastic and cheap plastic at that. Not so any more.
You won’t be mistaking it for the leather-encased cabins of ultra-luxury imports from Europe, but the Charger’s interior ambiance holds up very well, and all the necessary controls for audio, climate, and optional navigation are intuitive to operate and within easy reach of the driver.
The Charger has been updated with technology such as satellite radio and Garmin-based navigation but doesn’t overwhelm you when it comes to the operation of such gee-whiz features. Duplicate audio controls, as is the custom of the day, may be found on the steering wheel along with buttons for the cruise control.
Its bold, aggressive styling may suit you or it may not. But for those seeking a car suitable for a family as well has something out of the ordinary in the Muscle Car tradition, the Charger offers a viable option. And you have a choice of power and less mileage by going with the V8 or less power and better mileage with the V6. Either way works.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE CHARGER: The touchscreen was big (8.4 inches) and well-marked to operate such functions as the audio and navigation systems. The side and rear windows are bigger and offer improved visibility over previous models.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT THE CHARGER: To get the transmission in gear, you must not only have your foot on the brake (common and sensible), you also must press a button on the shift lever to get it from Park into Drive or Reverse (unnecessary and a pain).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I wanted to alert you to a very important election.
No, not that one in November.
One going right now.
The website, which was launched in 2008 as “a dynamic entertainment, news and lifestyle network,” is conducting a poll to determine “BeerCity USA!”
Now tell me that isn’t more fun than what we are getting nightly on TV these days.
About three weeks ago (I’m late getting to this party; sorry) the website asked for nominations for the top city for beer lovers. In all, 6,701 nominations were cast, ten times more than the contest for the previous year. The cities that received 100 votes in the nomination poll were added to 15 finalists from last year’s contest to form a ballot of 31 cities for the 2012 poll.
Now voting is being conducted to determine the winner. The poll closes on May 15, and you may vote only once by going to
I should mention here that the impetus behind this poll is an appreciation of craft beer, which doesn’t necessarily rule out the Budweiser-Miller-Coors lovers but does explain the current poll leader and the past winners.
Of the latter, Asheville, North Carolina, has won the contest three times. The city offers up more than 50 local brews from nine different breweries with more on the way.
Sierra Nevada, out of Chico, California, is opening its East Coast brewery near the city next year, and New Belgium (Fat Tire), out of Fort Collins, Colorado, will follow in 2014.
But in the early 2012 voting, Asheville was running behind Grand Rapids, Michigan, for first place with St. Louis a distant third. Grand Rapids had 25 percent of the early votes, Asheville 23, and St. Louis 13.
No other city was in double figures in percentage of the total vote. In fact, fourth on the list with less than half that of St. Louis was was Bend, Oregon, with 6 percent followed closely by its neighbor, Portland, with 5 percent.
Asheville I understand. I like the products out of Highland Brewery, and I have been told that’s not even the best brewery in town. St. Louis I understand as well. The city is filled with local breweries that put its most famous beer producer, Anheuser-Busch, to shame.
And Oregon as a state puts out some great microbrews. Too bad Portland and Bend were splitting the vote. (The same is true in Colorado with Denver, Durango, and Fort Collins).
But Grand Rapids?
Maybe someone can help me out there. No other Michigan city is even listed among the qualifiers.
A quick Internet search reveals that there are several microbreweries in the area, along with the interesting item that just last month the state of Alabama barred one of its brands because of “profanity” in its label.
The name of the beer?
Dirty Bastard.
I’m thinking as well that might have hit too close to home in Alabama.
Anyway, you might check out the site and cast your vote. I couldn’t vote for my own city because there is no way Miami would have gotten enough initial votes to be nominated.
So I voted for St. Louis.