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Apr. 10th, 2007

legome

Can small be the new big?

I have a thing for little cars. I always have. I blame my dad. We always had some tiny little economy car, usually European, and his tennis buddies all had small sports cars of one make or another. Over the years I've lusted after the Fiero, the Miata, the Honda CRX, the Toyota MR2; hell, I even kinda dug the Ford Festiva, but don't tell anyone.

By virtue of driving clunkers for so long, I've owned just about every possible size and shape of car. And while I do have a soft spot for the sound and lazy torque of a big V8, I'm fully aware that life is better with an engine under 2 liters and a wheelbase under 100 inches. (Which means that my current car, a Ford Focus hatchback, barely qualifies.) I loved my 1979 Buick LeSabre, with its cushy velour bench seat and its big chrome gearshift on the column, but my little 1986 Dodge Colt, which didn't even have or need power steering, was a lot easier to live with. And more fun to drive.

I just wish more people in this country shared my feelings about car size. We have all these humongous SUVs and trucks running around, with 300 horsepower and curb weights over two and a half tons, and most of the time they're carrying one person, or maybe two. And I'm not even talking about the Escalades and the Navigators; the BMW and Volvo SUVs, and even the VW Touareg for that matter, are several sizes bigger than they need to be.

And it's fine if that's what people really want to drive. Free country and all that. But if you drive a Chevy Trailblazer, you could get damn near as much passenger and cargo room if you drove a RAV 4, but with double the fuel economy, a smoother ride, and better (and far safer) handling. People buy Trailblazers because of the big engine with its huge numbers, and because they think a big heavy cumbersome lump that can't get out of its own way is somehow "safer." But it's not. It's much less safe, and much more wasteful.

But maybe that can change. I keep hoping that people will get frustrated with the poor gas mileage and crap maneuverability of these dinosaurs. But people still hear "economy car" and think Geo Metro or Toyota Tercel. It's only now that we're getting some decent choices on the small car market.

And the lastest one is the smallest: the Smart Fortwo.

This is so my kind of car. The one that they're selling in the US next year is the second generation, with a slightly bigger engine and slightly larger overall size than the original. The styling is also a lot cleaner; it looks like a "real car" now. And what a great setup! A 1 liter, 3-cylinder engine with a 5 speed clutchless manual transmission (you have to shift, but there's no clutch pedal), standard ABS brakes and electronic stability. (Oh, and rear wheel drive. It's about freaking time someone did that again. The original Mini was a brilliant design, but that doesn't mean that every small car has to have a transverse front engine and front drive.)

Not to mention gas mileage as good as a Prius, without the extravagant sticker price or the snootiness. Small, cheap-to-replace tires. Simple mechanics (I wouldn't even order one with power steering; a 1700 lb car can't possibly need it). And engineering by Mercedes-Benz, in case you were worried this was another eastern European company pawning off ten-year-old Italian designs, like Yugo did. This is the real deal, a whole new way of thinking about economy cars.

It's not for everyone, obviously; it's strictly a two-seater, and you can't haul much or tow anything. But the coming of the Smart, combined with other cool new small cars like the Mini, the Honda Fit, and the Toyota Yaris, and three-dollar-a-gallon gas, might finally put a dent in the SUV-with-its-own-zip-code market.

Yeah, I'm hyped about the new Camaro coming out next year. But I probably wouldn't buy one. The Smart, if the wind were blowing the right way and we had a bigger car for when we needed one, I'd seriously consider. And I hope other people will, too.
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Mar. 23rd, 2007

redmini

A car analogy for the science vs church "debate"

While I was driving to work today, I came up with an interesting metaphor that I think explains why rational scientific types get so frustrated with religious fundamentalists:

Imagine you and I are trying to fix a car. It won't start. You think that it might be a faulty fuel pump. I say, "Okay, let's test the fuel pump."

So I test the fuel pump, and it works fine. No problems whatsoever. Whatever is keeping the car from starting, it is most definitely NOT the fuel pump.

But you either weren't looking, or weren't paying attention, when I checked the fuel pump, and so you refuse to accept that it's not the problem. You steadfastly cling to your belief that the fault lies with the fuel pump, and you refuse to acknowledge that anything else might be wrong. You write a book documenting a "history" of how the fuel pump came to be faulty, and why the only way to get the car to run is to pay close attention to the fuel pump.

While you're busy doing this, I'm checking out the rest of the car. I check the fuses, test the battery, test the ignition system. One by one I rule out possible causes for the car not starting. When I get to the ignition system, I find something that might be a problem, but it will take me a while longer to find the actual problem. But given enough time, I'll get the car going.

I tell you, "Hey, stop mucking around with the fuel pump. I already checked it. It's fine. Come here; there's something in the ignition system I want to show you."

"No," you tell me. "The problem is the fuel pump. It has always been the fuel pump. I have faith."

Now I'm annoyed. "Leave the damn fuel pump alone! I tested it; it's not the problem. I don't know what the problem is yet, but I have a pretty good idea it's somewhere in the ignition sytstem."

"No," you insist. "I have every right to believe that the fuel pump is faulty." And you DO have that right. But that line of thinking isn't going to get the car fixed.

Time passes, and my followers keep poking around the ignition system, get a tiny spark, get the car to almost start, but not quite... and your followers, still clinging to the notion that the fuel pump is to blame, kill some of my followers for even looking at the ignition system. But I persist, and we chip away at the problem, little by little, making improvements to the rest of the car as we go along.

Then, all of a sudden, you challenge me for the title to the car. You're going to service it, you tell me, based solely on the one book you wrote all those years ago, which discusses nothing but the fuel pump. In doing this, you are willing to throw out volumes of text that I have written, explaining in exacting detail every part of the car from the differential to the hood ornament. Not all of it is 100% correct, but we're still working on it, and with every revision, it gets a little better.

And we've almost got the damn car running, and you want to throw out all that work and make us go back to poking around the fuel pump? And you expect us to respect you for it?

Not bloody likely. Get out of my way and let me fix the fucking car.
I have places to go.

Feb. 15th, 2007

legome

Bitchin' Camaro

Grow out your mullets and dig out those old Iron Maiden tapes, my fellow car guys: next year, Chevy is bringing back the Camaro!

And guess what: it's gorgeous.

The older Camaros matter more as icons than as actual cars; virtually everyone who was a teenager anytime between the late 60s and the 90s has owned/driven/ridden in/gotten stoned in/had sex in/crashed/lusted after one. My buddy Kirk in high school had a bright yellow 1978 RS, and there were about a dozen more in the parking lot. I drooled over the electric blue IROC-Z in the showroom of Westphal Chevrolet. In college, I came within a whisker of buying a 1984 Z28 (I bought a 1983 Nissan 4x4 truck instead). And when my grandpa introduced me to his car-collecting friend down in Kansas, it was the red-over-white 1969 Camaro SS in his collection that was my hands-down favorite.

But it's more than that. We need a new Camaro, just to break up the sea of minivans and SUVs and "crossovers" (just call 'em station wagons, will ya?) and beige sedans. We need an impractical choice or two, something you drive because driving it makes you feel cool. It's not family-friendly or comfortable or "designed to fit your lifestyle." Screw easy-to-live-with. We need a car with soul.

Yes, there are other sports cars out there. But they're disappearing at an alarming rate. Ten years ago, you could buy a Toyota Celica, a Honda Prelude, a Mazda MX-6, a Dodge Daytona... all gone now. Sure, there's the Mustang, but it's too "corporate" feeling. It's trying too hard to be "retro." And the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Mazda RX-8 are too cushy, too big, too expensive. And like the Mustang, soulless. The Camaro is evocative, sleek, low-slung and rumbly, and just a little bit dangerous. It calls up memories of the old ones, but it also looks futuristic.

And it's not that I'm clamoring to buy one or anything. I just want to see them out on the streets. I want kids to have a car worth building models of. (Hell, I want to build a model of one.) I want to know that the whole world isn't rated PG-13.

Now, GM might still screw it all up. It has to be cheap enough to be an attainable goal, and it has to be a little bit rough-edged (that's another problem with the Mustang; you might as well be driving a two-door Taurus). But if they get it right, and a base V6 costs 20 grand, and a Z28 makes some exhaust noise, and they're both hard to parallel-park, then we're on to something.

I won't be in line to buy one next year, but I can't wait to test-drive one.
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Jan. 26th, 2007

legome

Lights

Another rant. Sorry, but I gotta vent.

This morning, I was behind not one, but three different cars with malfunctioning brake lights. One, a Toyota pickup, had only the center light working, high above my normal field of vision. A second, a Chevy Cavalier, had only the left light working, and it was so dim it was impossible to see until I was right on top of it. And the third, an old Dodge van, actually had no working brake lights at all, which is wonderful for a vehicle you can't see around. (I gave him plenty of room.)

Don't you pay any attention to your vehicle? You depend on it day in and day out to convey you to and fro safely, and yet you neglect what is arguably its most basic safety feature. It's not hard to check if they're woking, either: Next time you're parked with a plate-glass window behind you, step on the brakes and look in the mirror. If you don't see three lights (two on pre-1986 cars), FIX IT.

It's not expensive or difficult to do; the bulbs are $2-5 depending on the age of the car, and there are instructions on how to replace them in the owner's manual (you kept it, didn't you?). And if new bulbs don't solve the problem, then something else needs fixing. But you should treat a car without brake lights as non-operational until they are fixed. Airbags, ABS, stability control, all mean exactly squat if someone rear-ends you because your brake lights don't work. If you can't get at least two lights working, don't drive the car.

Oh, and on a related note? For you three imbeciles who installed the blinking middle brake light: It's not "safe;" it's distracting, annoying, and ILLEGAL. You do NOT know better than the entire auto industry, the NHTSA, and the highway department. If it was a good idea for brake lights to blink, they would blink. Take that shit out and put a real brake light back in, TODAY.

At the other end of the car, use your LOW BEAM headlights when there are other cars around. The only time you need the high-beams is when the road is empty, which is NEVER, here in Los Angeles. Again, it's not "safer" to have your high beams on in traffic. It's dangerous, because it blinds other people, and it PISSES PEOPLE OFF. Turn 'em off! And as far as I'm concerned, the car in front of you is well within their rights to slam on their brakes and "turn them off" for you.

I won't mention turn signals, because that's a lost cause. But I will say that if the car in the next lane has its signal on, it does NOT mean "speed up and close the gap." Stop being so thoughtless and just let me in. It's dickhead moves like that that make people not want to use their signals in the first place. I shouldn't have to do things wrong to "trick" you into letting me in.

None of this comes as any surprise to me. People being stupid thoughtless assholes is prettyy much par for the course. But really, if you can't be bothered to pay attention to a few simple things about the lights on your car, do the rest of us really need you?
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Dec. 4th, 2006

legome

My new dream car

I have a new dream car: the Tesla Roadster.

Think about it: a sports car with Corvette-beating performance. 100% electric, practically maintenance-free, great styling, a Lotus chassis, and lots of cool gadgets and features. Sure it's expensive ($100,000), but what better way to antagonize Mercedes S-class drivers than by silently blowing their doors off?

Now, even if I could afford one, there's no way I'd buy one for a couple years anyway. I want to make sure the car's reliable and the company is going to stick around. (Remember Bricklin? Didn't think so.) But if they prove themselves, and this is the real deal, this is huge news.

So about that price: If your gamble pays off, Tesla, then in a couple years I offer you this challenge: Make one the rest of us can afford. I suggest something about the size, shape, and practicality level of a second-generation Honda CRX. You can scale back the performance a little if you want; I don't need to go 0-60 in four seconds. I live in Los Angeles; I want comfy seats, a smooth ride, a good stereo, strong HVAC, and room for grocery bags. A two-seater is fine. We're not having kids. Sell it for under $20,000 and I'll gladly give up my Focus.

And in the meantime, if I somehow acquire the means, I'll take one in blue, please.
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Jun. 19th, 2006

redmini

A very frustrating dilemma

In most every issue, I'm a political lefty. I lean a little towards libertarian when it comes to things like gun control and free speech, but I almost always vote Democrat, and MoveOn.org can count on me to sign most of their petitions.

But every time the "let's eliminate fossil fuels" one comes up, I feel torn. You see, I'm a car guy. I have been my whole life, and it's not likely to change. As such I'm not entirely sure I want to eliminate fossil fuels. At least not until there's an alternative that offers some of the same visceral thrills.

The serious, heavy-duty treehuggers seem happy with their ancient Subarus and shiny Priuses, they get all excited about fuel cells, and they recoil in horror when I wax enthusiastic about my love of Chevy small-blocks and great big Holley carburetors. I describe the joy of a tail-out powerslide around a tight corner and they nearly choke on their Clif bars. Dead dinosaur juice has brought immense pleasure to me throughout my life, and the crowd that sees the automobile as nothing more than a form of transportation and a necessary evil looks down their collective nose at me because of it. So how can they expect me to peruse used Mustang listings one minute and sign the internal-combustion engine's death warrant the next?

I have driven a Prius, and both generations of Honda Civic hybrids. All are perfectly competent modes of transportation, once you get used to the engine "stalling" at every stoplight. But in terms of driving excitement, they're the equivalent of shredded wheat. With no sugar or fruit on top. A Mustang, even a six-cylinder one, with its live rear axle and its swoopy styling, is more like a big bowl of Cocoa Puffs. And I have always been cuckoo for them.

At the far other end of the spectrum, of course, are the cars that are like eating a Nestle Crunch bar dipped in rum and deep-fried: vintage muscle cars, hot rods, and the like. Not only do they burn through fossil fuels at a profligate rate, they also have no emissions controls whatsoever, and spew out clouds of nasty stuff wherever they go. But that doesn't diminish the appeal of that V8 rumble, the stance of those big wide rear tires, the gleam of all that real chrome.

I don't want a rum-battered Crunch bar. But Cocoa Puffs have vitamins and minerals, too, you know. A V6 Mustang is certified as an LEV (and maybe even a ULEV for the new ones) and it gets nearly 30 miles per gallon on the highway. Okay, so it's no Prius, but that's pretty respectable compared to all those giant SUVs, isn't it? I can be a "good liberal" and still like sports cars, can't I?

I'm all for getting off the oil habit. That stuff just would have to be the most common in the most politically volatile part of the world, wouldn't it? And sure, polluting is bad. I know that. But does the future have to mean all these dopey little fuel-cell cars that struggle to reach 80 mph and handle like shopping carts? Can I still have a V8, if I can figure out how to run it off a renewable energy source? Or will I have to sit around in museums when I'm old and gray, gazing nostalgically at a Camaro, carefully roped off from the public, never to set tire to road again, and try to describe the feel of that engine at idle to passing schoolchildren?

I haven't signed the petition yet. I'm still not sure I should.
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