Saturday, July 30, 2016


Every month the Southern Automotive Media Association — an organization of automotive journalists based in Miami but with members from all over the country — has  a luncheon that’s usually sponsored by an automotive manufacturer who wants to give us a peek at its latest product.

This month’s event at the Rusty Pelican Restaurant across Biscayne Bay from Miami’s Brickell area was rather special in that the vehicle was the new Rolls-Royce Dawn Drophead Coupe (a fancy term for convertible) and Gerry Spahn, the company’s communications director, saw to it that those in attendance also got the opportunity for short jaunts in the beautiful new car.

The chance to get behind the wheel of a $345,000-plus vehicle doesn’t come along very often, even for auto reviewers who have been in the business longer than I have, which is only 15 years now. Unfortunately, I had to leave before getting behind the wheel, but just a look at this car is enough to take your breath away.

Spahn kind of summed it up when he said that Rolls-Royce is “not a car, it’s a luxury item.”

There’s no doubt it holds a special place in automotive hierarchy.

One of the few automotive companies that has reached the century mark in longevity with the same logo and same name, Rolls-Royce has undergone a revitalization since BMW purchased the company in 1998.

“Rolls-Royce hit its hey-day in the ’60s — the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s — and peaked out in the early ’70s,” Spahn said in his presentation. “then went into the ’80s and the ’90s on a downslide.”

But BMW Group started a rebuilding process that started with the a new Phantom, which, as Spahn noted, was the most expensive, most exclusive motor car there is in the world. That kind of perplexed Spahn, who was with another company at the time.

His question?

“How can you start there and then try and grow your business?” he said.

But if he didn’t understand it then, he does now.

“When I look back on it, it makes perfect sense.”

That strategy re-affirmed the company’s status as a luxury item.

“From 2003 to about 2009, Rolls-Royce never sold more than 1,000 cars,” he said. “But that was the plan. Establish a secure base of very, very loyal customers for a luxury item.”

Then in 2009 came the Rolls-Royce Ghost and in 2013, the Wraith.

And volume started to grow, though that was a result of the approach, not the ultimate goal.

“The key to learning is never chase that volume,” he said. “The easiest way to chase volume is with a cheaper car, is to commoditize your product. So we don’t chase that volume. We let the volume comes to us, and we build the products that make our overall volume grow. Volume is not our objective. It is the byproduct of building beautiful, beautiful motor cars.

“I think that is something I cannot express enough.”

Now Dawn is a new start for Rolls-Royce (An aside here: How many headline writers do you think are going to refer to this convertible as the “dawn of a new era” for Rolls-Royce? Yeah, me too. Few will resist.) The company has seen more new owners come into the brand in recent years with “80 percent of the new owners first-generation wealth,” Spahn said.

Alas. I am not part of that 80 percent. But maybe you are. If you want to check out Spahn’s presentation, it’s on Youtube at and takes just over 10 minutes to view.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


Before getting into a look at the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V coupe, I offer a confession: Growing up, I was not a big fan of Cadillac.

Oh, I respected the brand, and everybody in my small town neighborhood recognized it as the leading luxury carmaker in the U.S. at the time, but we were looking for more in the way of a fun driving experience than the big land yachts with the huge tailfins offered. Cadillac was luxury, not performance. (Not that we could have afforded a Cadillac in the first place, you understand.)

But that was Cadillac yesterday, not Cadillac today.

Today you’ll find Cadillac models that not only deliver when it comes to the ultimate in creature comforts but cars that — finally — rival their counterparts from Europe and Japan when it comes to get-up-and-go.

The company started getting serious about that a little over a decade ago when it introduced the first of its “V” series performance-tuned models, the CTS-V, a V-8 powered brute built to appeal to a younger audience while not turning off the traditional Cadillac shopper. It was made available in sedan, coupe, and wagon form, though the coupe and wagon have since been dropped.

The latest entrant in the “V” series family is the ATS-V. Cadillac introduced the ATS sedan on which it is based for 2013 as a competitor to the venerable BMW 3-Series. The coupe version followed a couple of years later, and in 2015 Caddy upped the ante with the ATS-V sedan.

This year, it’s the ATS-V coupe that has been added to the portfolio.

Unlike the CTS-V, the ATS-V doesn’t have the massive V8 engine under the hood, but instead gets its power from the company’s first twin-turbo, 3.5-liter V6. With 464 horsepower and 445 pound-feet of torque going to the rear wheels via either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, punch is certainly not lacking. The zero-to-60 mph clocking, according to the company, is 3.8 seconds, and the top speed 189 mph.

In case you’re wondering (or even if you’re not), that’s just .1 second off the zero-to-60 time for the V8-powered CTS-V and only 11 mph off the CTS-V’s max speed of 200 mph.

So when it comes to performance, yeah, you won’t find anything much better. 

Same things goes with luxury. Cadillac apparently raided a Prada factory because leather and suede is everywhere throughout the interior. The only sound that seems to come through the cabin is from the ear-pleasing, pulsating bass beat from the quad dual exhausts.

My only complaints are with with CUE system for operation of infotainment functions and the usual issue with a coupe of getting into a backseat that doesn’t have a lot of room. The trunk also is on the small side — only 10.4 cubic feet, which is tight even for a coupe.

What I liked about the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V Coupe: The styling is really eye-catching and features some unique elements, like a lightweight carbon fiber hood with air vents and larger grille openings to feed more air into the twin turbos. Fenders are wider to accommodate the 18-inch wheels (9-inch wide on the front, 9.5 on the rear). Its performance lives up to its athletic stance. It is especially striking with the Velocity Red exterior (unofficially dubbed “arrest me” red) that matches the finish of Cadillac racing team’s No. 3 ATS V.R Coupe race car in the Perilli World Challenge competition.

What I didn’t like about the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V coupe: Cadillac has done some fine-tuning on the CUE system that operates infotainment functions such as audio, navigation, etc., but other than a voice-operated feature that responds well to oral commands, it’s still a pain to operate. It features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and 4GLTE Wi-Fi is available.

Would I buy the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V coupe: If I wasn’t concerned about budget, sure. But the base MSRP for the coupe is $62,665, and options like a carbon fiber package (hood extractor, front splitter, rear diffuser) and black non-carbon rocker extensions and a body-color rear spoiler, Recaro performance seats, a luxury package (HID headlamps, sport alloy pedals, navigation, and Bose sound), the automatic transmission, and more, ran the total bill for our test model up to nearly $80,000 ($79,205 to be exact). Considering the standard ATS coupe starts at around half that and the luxury in the $50,000 range, that’s quite a lot to pay to get from zero-to-60 mph a second-and-a-half or so quicker.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Nothing gets me more stoked than to hear that my friendly press fleet manager plans to deliver a new convertible to my driveway for one of my weekly test runs.

Well, nothing, that is, unless that convertible is also a sporty little two-seat roadster in the mold of traditional British sports cars from the 1950s and early ’60s.

There’s just something about them that pushes all the right buttons with me.

Of course, opportunities to get behind the wheel of such cars are pretty few. In fact, though there are roadster offerings from both Europe and Japan, only one really comes close to matching the classic MG, Triumph Spitfire, and Austin Healy models of a half-century ago, and that would be Mazda’s MX-5 Miata.

When you factor in such items as cost and size, the Miata pretty much alone at the top of the segment.

But now it has a competitor.

Fiat’s 124 Spider is back in U.S. showrooms for the first time since the Italian automaker ceased production of the original back in 1985. (Google “Fiat 124 Spider history” for an interesting read.)

And, oddly enough, it got a hand from Mazda to get here.

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is pretty much an Italian take on the Miata, and the similarities between the two are so significant it may have you doing double-takes as you slide behind the wheel. Even the screen for the Spider’s infotainment system sticks up from the dash, just like on the the Miata.

The fabric top is manufactured by the Haartz Corporation and operates the same way on the Spider as on the Miata. To lower, you undo the latch and flip it back over your head until it clicks in place. To raise it, you (as the driver or passenger) reach back and hit a release button between the seats.

The top then pops up just enough for you to get a hand on it and pull it back over your head, snapping the latch at the top of the windshield back in place to secure it. You can do it while waiting at a redlight with time to spare.

There’s a reason for the similarities. The Spider is built alongside the Miata at Mazda’s assembly plant in Hiroshima, Japan, with Mazda providing the platform for the two-seater as well as some other attributes.

There are differences, of course, and it would not be correct to say that the Fiat 124 Spyder is nothing more than rebadged Miata.

The engine in the Spider is a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that sends 160 (Classico and Lusso trim) or 164 horsepower (Abarth) to the rear wheels via either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. The Miata gets a 2.0-liter four-banger featuring the company’s SkyActiv technology with 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. It’s also mated with either an automatic or manual tranny.

The Spider is 159.6 inches long with a wheelbase of 90.9 inches. The Miata has the same wheelbase but is slightly shorter at 154 inches. There are only tenths of inches difference in height and width.

The Spider is slightly heavier with a curb weight 2,436 pounds going up to  2,516 pounds (depending on the trim and transmission) while the Miata weighs in at  2,332 or 2,381 pounds (depending on the transmission).

And there are distinct differences in the exterior with the Fiat getting styling touches like creases in the hood and its own headlight style, which is a bit more open than the catlike slits of the new Miata.

But the real common denominator between the two is that both offer a fun driving experience. Even with the automatic transmission in the Fiat I had, the extra oomph from the turbocharged engine compensated for the Spider’s extra weight in delivering a peppy performance similar to that from the Miata.

Which brings up a question: With both vehicles carrying starting prices under $30,000, Fiat would seem to be getting significantly more out of this collaboration with Mazda than the Japanese automaker is. Fiat gets a significant addition to its lineup in the U.S. Mazda gets a strong competitor for its popular Mita.

I asked a Mazda spokesperson about that, but that answer I got was that nobody is allowed to comment on the company’s “partnership” with Fiat/Chrysler.

Not that it matters. The result is a win for fans looking for an affordable sports car for their garage.

What I liked about the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider: It’s a fun car to drive. It’s got all of the attributes of the Miata, and the styling tweaks add a touch of class.

What I didn’t like about the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider: Unfortunately, the Spider’s infotainment system (audio, navigation, etc.) is identical to that of the Miata and is not the most user-friendly. Everything except the climate control works off a knob below the gear shifter on the center console with the requirement that the screen be in the right mode. With the top up, the car a bit loud at higher speeds on the expressway (we actually got off the turnpike and got back on city streets so we could hear the radio on our way home), and a flat-bottom steering wheel would be nice to help ease access and egress for the driver.

Would I buy this car? In a heartbeat.

Thursday, July 14, 2016



I have been writing car reviews for going on 15 years now, which is not necessarily a significant milestone.

I mention it only because last week I was driving a Hyundai Elantra and got to thinking that my stint as an automotive journalist pretty much corresponds to the South Korean automaker’s surge of success in the U.S.

At one time Hyundai, as well as its Korean counterpart Kia, seemed to be headed out of the U.S. market because of a reputation for putting out vehicles that were among the cheapest to buy, which spurred early sales success in the 1980s, but shoddy when it came to quality.

Nobody was more aware of this reputation than the Hyundai people themselves. Once at an event where the new 2002 Sonata was being previewed I heard a company PR rep from California make the comment that a lot of people were confusing Hyundai’s slant-H logo for Honda’s, and that was a good thing for Hyundai.

But rather than retreat, Hyundai got serious. The company began offering a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty to give prospective buyers assurance of quality and then started making cars that lived up to it. Or maybe it was the other way around. Same result.

Since that event I attended in 2001, Hyundai has gone upscale with such products as the Genesis coupe and sedan and the Equus sedan taking on luxury entrants from Europe and Japan, and the company has enjoyed success in its overall lineup as well. The company announced earlier this July that it had enjoyed its best first six months in U.S. sales ever with 374,061 vehicles sold.

According to the website, that puts Hyundai at No. 7 in the U.S. market behind Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, Nissan, Honda, and Jeep and ahead of Kia, Subaru, and Dodge among the top 10 for the year.

That Elantra I mentioned earlier?

Though it is the company’s best-seller, it really didn’t do its part in the numbers increase so far. Elantra sales for the first six months were down from 128,698 for the first half of 2015 to 96,306 for the first six months of this year and were off over 4,000 for June alone compared to June 2015.

But that likely will change as the year goes on. The Elantra has been redesigned for 2017, and the changes correct some of the shortcomings of the previous generation.

It’s a more comfortable riding car, with nice room front and back (42.2 inches of legroom up front, 35.7 in the back), and trunk space, while not the most of its class,  is still an adequate 14.4 cubic feet. That’s more room for stuff than what you get in a Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, and Mazda3 but not quite as much as that offered in a Honda Civic sedan.

My test vehicle for the week was the top-of-the-line Limited trim that offered both a Tech Package and an Ultimate Package of options that helped boost the total MSRP to $27,710. The Tech Package includes a navigation system with an 8-inch touchscreen, a premium sound system, and power sun roof.

The Ultmate Package, which requires that you buy the Tech Package, throws in HID headlights, automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, Smart cruise control, and lane-keeping assist.

If you can live without all that (but why would you?), the base MSRP for the Elantra Limited is $22,350 plus the $835 destination and delivery charge.

For that, you get as standard features that include 17-inch alloy wheels, SiriusXM satellite radio, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Hyundai’s BlueLink connectivity, dual A/C, steering wheel-mounted controls for audio and cruise control, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, leather seats, a power adjustable driver’s seat (manual for the passenger), and more.

For the record, the base SE version of the Elantra starts at under $18,000 and in between there’s an Eco trim that starts at under $21,500 including the destination and delivery charges.

The Elantra Eco is equipped with a new 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes up for an unimpressive 128 horsepower with 156 pound-feet or torque, but our Elantra Limited came with a 2.0-liter four-banger with 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque.

A six-speed manual is standard on SE trim, but the Limited gets only a six-speed automatic transmission. You can select gears manually, but with no paddle shifters, it’s kind of an exercise in futility. The Eco gets a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

With power numbers like those, you’re not going to get much in the way of performance out of the Elantra, but fuel economy on the Limited is rated at 28 miles-per-gallon city, 37 highway, and 32 combined, which is what I got from it for the week.

What I liked about the 2017 Hyundai Elantra: The styling, both inside and out, is really eye-catching. The array of technological features offered in the packages are very user-friendly and match what you find on many luxury vehicles today.

What I didn’t like about the 2017 Hyundai Elantra: A little more punch would be appreciated, especially when you’re trying to get across busy intersections or blending into highway traffic.

Would I buy this car? I would if there was a bit more in the way of performance. As for esthetics and technology, it’s hard to beat for its class.

Monday, July 11, 2016


Theatrical Release Poster

Though it is 20 years old this year, you probably remember the movie “The Cable Guy” which stared Jim Carrey as a rather disturbed cable TV installer who is more stalker than technician with Matthew Broderick as his target.

After the last few days of dealing with a cable company that shall remain anonymous (hint: it rhymes with bombast) and particularly this afternoon, I can identify with one of the characters. Unfortunately, it is Matthew Broderick.

It all started some time back when I noticed that my downstairs TV receiver wasn’t responding to commands like it should. I would punch a button to delete a recorded program I had just watched or change a channel and nothing would happen.

I’d try to scroll the directory and it would freeze up, so I’d hit the button five or six times and all of a sudden it would scroll rapid fire past where I wanted. So I’d have to back it up to find my selection.

Oh, the humanity.

I thought maybe the remote just needed new batteries, but after changing them, it still didn’t work right. Plus now I was out a couple of batteries that probably were still good.

My wife one day mentioned that people she was talking to on the phone would complain that our phone was cutting out and they hadn’t heard her for the last couple of minutes. (Insert your own joke here.) The two services are from the same company (under a program run by the company that has the same name as a luxury car put out by Nissan, but with different spelling) so I went to the company’s website to get on a chat line to find out what was going on.

The tech on the chat line had me to unplug the phone and plug it back it to see if it worked. It did, of course, but I reminded him that wasn’t the problem. I always could make or receive calls. The line just would go dead from time to time.

That was about all that person could do, so he said he would send out a repairman to check it out. He have me a two-hour window for the next day, and what do you know but the repairman showed up right on time! Amazing.

It turned out he couldn’t fix my problem, however. The problem was in the box outside my house, and he was an inside guy only. Who knew there were such specialists?

He said he would arrange to have a crew come out and work on it, and we wouldn’t even have to be home at the time since they didn’t have to come inside the house.


But he wanted to come back to re-arrange some wiring in my home to make it easier to work on if he had to come back again some day, and so he set up an appointment for 10-noon Friday. It would be him or another guy. Friday came and 12 o’clock passed and nobody showed up. I happened to see a cable truck outside, but the guy was there to work on the box for the neighborhood, not mine. He said he didn’t see an appointment for me, so I went back home and called the company. They said my appointment was for 1-3 Monday. Didn’t matter that they had called me Thursday to confirm my Friday appointment.

No big deal, though. I’d just leave the furniture where I had moved it so he could get to the wall outlets.

Today is Monday, and when the “inside guy” had not come back by 3 p.m., even though the appointment had been confirmed by phone the day before, I went back to the company’s website to see what happened. I was like No. 193 in line for the “chat” but waited it out only to learn that now my appointment was for 8-10 a.m. Tuesday. Or that’s what the agent, whose name on the “chat” screen was Ashutosh (probably from California), told me.

Then I decided to check my account while I was online and found that my upcoming bill was nearly $100 higher than last month’s. Whoa. Ashutosh said that was because my special promotion rate had run out, but no fear. Ashutosh had an offer for me.

Ashutosh could give me the same channel lineup for $165.95, but with other fees added, it was up to nearly 200. And that didn’t include taxes and some other fees, which took the total well over $220. When I said it really wasn’t good enough, Ashutosh said to call the company and they might have something better.

I called, and after punching numerous buttons to get a real live voice on the phone, I reached someone whose name I didn’t understand. Her offer was slightly higher than Ashutosh’s, but she said maybe Ashutosh was figuring the total differently.

I said I wanted to think about it and hung up.

That wasn’t quite right. What I wanted to do was check out to see what AT&T had available. The prices there seemed  better, but further checking showed that I wouldn’t get some of the channels that are my mainstays unless I got a lineup that would cost nearly the same as what I was paying, er, Bombast.

So I called my original company back and went through push-button hell again before I got a real live person on the line. This time Ghe (probably another Californian, right?) gave me a offer that will raise my monthly payment but by only about half of what it was going to be increased. Weakened by nearly two hours of “chatting” and punching my way through phone mazes, I relented and accepted.

I wonder what Matthew Broderick would have done.

Saturday, July 9, 2016



The last time I scribbled in this space (if you can scribble electronically) I gave a short synopsis on the 2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster and linked to my full review at

I had a lot fun during my week in that car, which was a new model that year, especially since it had a six-speed manual transmission.

Apparently, not enough people shared my enthusiasm, however, because Mini announced in a release dated Feb. 11, 2015, that it was discontinuing production of it and the other two-seater in its lineup, the Mini Coupe. According to the release, the two “will finish their careers together and as planned.”

As planned? Maybe it’s the cynic in me but I would think that lagging sales had something to do with it. A Car & Drive blog post at the time of the announcement noted that after just over two years, worldwide sales of the two vehicles were 27,350 for the Coupe and 28,867 for the Roadster, making it very much a “niche” vehicle.

And that niche has gotten smaller. According to the website, 673 Roadsters were sold in the U.S. the first six months of 2016 and 258 Coupes over the same period. Three customers stepped up to buy the Roadster in June. One. Two. Three. Wonder if they knew each other.

But I’m a bit off point here.

I haven’t come to bury the Roadster (or Coupe) but simply to note that my first effort in the revival of my blog after a nearly four-year hiatus also has to do with another Mini. Kind of a symmetry there.

This time, it’s the Mini Cooper Clubman that was introduced for 2008 and redesigned for 2016.

The 2016 Mini Cooper Clubman is a slightly larger version of the basic Mini Cooper Hatchback with more legroom for backseat passengers and more stowage space for your gear. That doesn’t make it a large vehicle by any means — it’s only a tad over 168 inches long — but legroom is a couple of ticks over 34 inches in the rear and there is 17.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Figures for the standard Mini Hatchback are 30.8 and 8.7, respectively. Mini says max cargo capacity for the Clubman is just under 48 cubic feet. Instead of a liftgate, doors to the rear cargo area are side-hinged.

The Clubman is offered in two trims.

My test vehicle for the week was the base Clubman that carries an MSRP of $24,950 including the $850 destination and delivery charge. With extras like a Sport Package (adjustable suspension, LED headlights, sport seats, and 17-inch wheels over the standard 16s), a Technology Package (navigation, rearview camera, and parking assistant), a six-speed automatic transmission in place of the standard six-speed manual, keyless entry, front sport seats, and satellite radio with a one-year subscription, the total came to $32,750.

It has a 1.5-liter, TwinPower turbo three-cylinder engine. That makes it the first three-cylinder that I’ve ever driven (at least I can recall), but with 134 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque, I didn’t notice anything different or lacking about it from the usual turbo four. Fuel economy isn’t all that great, just 25 mpg city, 35 highway with the manual and 25/34 with the automatic.

The Clubman S comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that bumps up the power to 184 hp and 207 lb.-ft.  of torque with fuel mileage at 24/34 with the automatic and 22/32 with the manual. The 17-inch wheels and sport seats are standard on the S, which starts at $28,550 including destination and delivery. An eight-speed automatic tranny with paddle shifters is available on the S.

Considering how much kick you get driving the base Clubman, you’ve got to figure the S gives even more fun behind the wheel. That’s one of the benefits of driving a smaller car, by the way. Even if it’s not, it seems nimbler than a larger car, and you can get the feel of really ripping off a hot lap without catching the eye of a roadside trooper — 60 mph has kind of the feel of 70.

The Mini Cooper Clubman does face a lot of competition, however. U.S. News & World Report, which does an analysis of reviews from several different critics, rates it no better than No. 8 among 16 cars in the subcompact class. That puts it behind its sidekick, the two-door Mini Cooper Hatchback (No. 4), but ahead of the Mini Cooper Paceman (No. 11). It is just ahead of the Toyota Prius C (No. 9), though I see a big gap between the two.

What I liked about the 2016 Mini Cooper Clubman: It’s fun to drive, even with the automatic, and the quality of the interior is very high, thanks no doubt to the influence of brand owner BMW.

What I didn’t like about the 2016 Mini Cooper Clubman: Road noise at times seemed to drown out the audio system, and the Great Circle display at the top of the center stack is a design turnoff. Pricing seems a bit on the high side for the class, again thanks no doubt to the influence of BMW.

Would I buy this car? Probably not, because that’s not where my tastes run, not because it’s not a good vehicle. If I’m looking for my primary transportation, I’m probably going to look at something a bit bigger, and if I’m looking for a second car to bang around in, I’m probably going to look at something a bit sportier, like the Mazda Miata. And I’m not going to drop $32,000 on it. Still, the Clubman was fun to try out, and it would be a good choice for a younger couple. The extra size makes it good for hauling around recreational gear.

By the way, at the end of my blog back in 2012 I mentioned that I was hoping to drive the Mini Roadster at the annual Rides-and-Smiles event for our automotive media association, SAMA, (see and I would report on how it turned out. Well, it turns out that BMW was not able to provide the Roadster for the event that year. So nothing to report.

Just to tie up loose ends.