Driving the BMW M6 Gran Coupe in reverse is better than Frogger.

I test drove a BMW M6 Gran Coupe last week, and I had more fun driving it backwards than forwards.

You see, driving it forward is a little stressful. The vehicle weighs almost 4400 lbs., and reacts to hard direction changes much as a plate of jello would  – with the top half and bottom half are going in different directions. Accelerating around a corner in second gear causes transmission confusion, as if the accelerator sent a message to a snoozing  transmission, who awoke abruptly, and selected a gear too low, causing wild rocking back and forth before smoothing at the next downshift.

The engine sounded great – in Dolby Surround Sound, that is. BMW pipes the engine sound through the stereo. I really don’t mind it – actually, I prefer they take it a step further – give me a Engine Sound Volume Knob, so I can really impress my passengers.

However, the highlight of my entire drive was parking it. BMW has a feature called “Park Assistant,” which uses cameras mounted under the rear view mirrors to look for a parking spot. It shows a bird’s eye view of your vehicle, and the empty parking spot. Reversing in-between two cars on the lot was almost like  playing Frogger. Supposedly I could have pushed a button, and the M6 would have parked itself. Wow.

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Tesla Model S 85 kWh Performance Test Drive

The next car I purchase needs to be unique. That’s why I found myself wanting to see what the Tesla Model S is all about. Looking back over my previous cars, the one I enjoyed the most was my 1992 Subaru SVX.

mysvxThere were few others on the road like it, and everywhere I went, people stared, and I always got compliments on it every time I parked. Maybe it’s the rock star wannabe in me. Matter of fact, I do play in a rock band.

Well, that was 1992. For the year 2014, the car that can turn heads the most rapidly, in my opinion, is the BMW i8. Of course, that’s over $136,000 later, and they’re in such demand, you have to purchase it sight-unseen.

There’s 2 other Tesla Model S cars on my street, so I knew I wouldn’t be a complete beta tester. I  visited the Tesla dealership in Raleigh, NC, which is about the size of a yoghurt shop with a big garage out back. However, the places is filled with the nicest people. They had the Model S 85KW, and the Performance Plus version.

First impressions:
Where are all the buttons? 

You know, there are automotive  engineers out there whose job is to design how buttons feel – the click, sound, reachability in the dark,  gloves accessibility, etc. If I were them, I’d hit the art supply store, get some giant markers and write signs that say, “Save the Defenseless Buttons!!” because Tesla Motors scraped off all the buttons with a putty knife. The giant center console is the size of about 4 iPads, and controls pretty much everything. If you think texting while driving is dangerous, try changing the screen from showing the map to showing the HVAC controls, and looking for the fan speed button at 65 mph. (Which arrives sooner than you think. Keep reading)

The only thing my 12-year old stepson remembered from the test drive was the giant iPad in the center. Note to automotive marketers appealing to the youth market. Don’t even show the car’s exterior. Just show the iPad in the center, and find a way to put Minecraft on it –  your sales will double in about 4 years. Here’s a video of Elon Musk demonstrating it: http://vimeo.com/30167914

Driving impressions:
Where’s the start button?
I though I was so cool to look for the Start/Stop button, instead of a keyhole, for I’m hip to automotive trends. Forget it. You turn on the car by stepping on the brake.  Not to mention the vehicle’s key is the size and shape of a windtunnel-optimized Matchbox  version of itself.

Once you step on the brake, you’re free to take off. No waiting for the engine to warm up. The salesman told me the A/C starts blowing cold air immediately, since there’s no waiting for an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) to warm up, and convert power from one form to another.

Speaking of the air conditioner, it is LOUD! Mainly because the car is so eerily silent, a fan blowing sounds like a roar of a tornado.

Where’s the engine sounds?
I met a Tesla Roadster owner about 5 years ago, who happily talked about his car for 15 minutes in a parking lot. Before he left, he said to me, “When I leave, I’m going to punch it, and you’re not going to hear anything, and it might freak you out.” Sure enough, he did, and it did. Like the car was being sucked away by a noiseless cosmic vacuum cleaner.

If you buy a $90,000 BMW M3 today,  it will pump synthesized engine noises into the cabin through the stereo speakers. If Tesla Motors had such a department, they’d have to pump rocket engine noises into the cabin because HOLY CRAP THIS CAR IS FAST!! I drove the P85 version first. Stepping on the accelerator produces instant, “I-can’t-lift-my-head-off-the-seat-if-I-tried, my-Starbucks-coffee-with-1-sip-left -is-now-staining-the-back-seat” acceleration.  Oh, and did I mention it’s silent? It’s eerie. It’s addictive. I configured the giant center display to show the backup camera output, and I loved watching giant beige Camrys turn into Hot Wheels beige Camrys (do they even bother making these?) in the span of 2 seconds.

I then drove the Performance Plus version, and the acceleration was even more frightening. How much so? It you turned the wheel slightly upon pedal mash-ication, it would chirp the tires.

How does it handle?
I haven’t grinned this much driving a car since I drove a Focus ST. For a vehicle this luxurious and quiet, it was fun diving into corners and having precious little body lean. The Model S’s electric (what else would it be?) steering has 3 adjustable heft settings, all adjustable by pressing a button on the center iPad. Kind of weird to press a glass screen, and feel the steering wheel get harder to turn.

Overall:
To get the Performance plus model, you have to spend around $120,000. When I told this to my wife, she said I need to cross-shop the Mercedes S-class while I’m at it. Hmmmm. Maybe I will. Stay tuned for that review…

 

 

Maybe the French really don’t hate us

I’m traveling through the West Coast, which is an experience in itself. If you weren’t reading a car blog, you’d have material for days to sift through. So I’ll try and stay on topic.

When we got off the plane at Las Vegas airport, the first thing I saw was a clump of 300 slot machines. There were about 3 or people dumping their hard-earned into them. I can just see their thoughts as they get off the plane.

“Oh, shoot. We rented a Kia. I sure wish I had some money so I could upgrade my family to a Malibu, because OH MY GAWD, MAUDE, LOOK AT ALL THOSE SLOT MACHINES, OUR PRAYERS ARE ANSWERED!!!”

I had the sense to sign up for the Hertz Gold membership, which meant I got to walk past about 400 unhappy people in the Hertz line, and go directly to our car, which was patiently waiting in slot 31. A tip to you travelers out there – get the Hertz Gold membership – it’s free.

Our first stop was the Hoover Dam. The first thing I noticed was that every third car was a 2014 Mustang convertible. Even more unusual, all were driven by men with red kerchiefs around their neck, and I swore I saw one wearing a beret. None of this made sense to me until I got to their airport, where I saw around 40 people speaking French, wearing jackets and baseball caps with Ford Mustang logos.

I approached who looked to be their leader – (he was wearing the most Mustang logos), and asked him what was going on. He was was the leader of the Mustang Club of France , and all their members had flown to Los Angeles, rented several hundred Ford Mustangs, and all drove to Las Vegas for a 50th anniversary celebration party.
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How cool is that? I had no idea American muscle cars has such a following overseas. Their leader even had a sticker of his 2005 Mustang convertible on his iPhone:1photo

Makes me feel bad about how we treated the Peugeot when while we had the chance.

Carmax or the mullet? Ooh! Let me think about that…

The other day I was driving to Carmax, because I was curious if they had any fun-to-drive cars with manual transmissions, like a VW GTI or a Focus ST. Turns out their manual selection consisted of a Dodge Ram, and a Kia Rio. Okay, they had more, but nothing interested me.

As I was about to turn in, I was blinded by a bright green apparition – flailing as if being chased by African Killer Bees, but instead, gave up running and decided to stop and swat them all.

I looked closer, and realized it was a man waving his arms and yelling “Turn Around” in attempt to get me NOT to turn into Carmax. His T-Shirt read, “Most $$ for your car!!” Apparently, a used car dealer that gives higher appraisals than Carmax hired him to pogo on the sidewalk like Q-bert in effort to corral customers into their lot.

carmax

Okay, first off, I can see the Craigslist ad that got this process started:

WANTED: Attractive, tall, young, slender female model, wanted for auto promotion. Must be willing to wear short skirt, have outgoing personality and ability to engage with customers. Oh, if you’re an overweight frumpy dude with a mullet, that’ll work too. We’re not picky.

Here’s the thing. If you haven’t already figured out that Carmax will give you the absolutely lowest for your car than any place around, you’re an idiot. Hmmm. Maybe a man with a mullet screaming on the sidewalk might be the thing that changes their minds…

I’m curious how many people he persuaded to get their used car appraised at his place of employment? Maybe one less than the number of people who blogged about him?

 

2012 Mercedes ML350 review

If you’re looking to raise eyebrows and impress people, your first purchase should be a expensive imported SUV. It even says so in Machiavelli’s first book. Which makes being seen in the back seat of a 2012 Mercedes ML350 one of the smartest buying decisions you can make to raise your stature at any Country, Polo, or Croquet Club. (Chauffeurs, incidentally, are also high-status symbols) So, how does the ML350 handle the white-glove treatment? Let’s find out.

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Steering:
Remember the Cadillacs El Dorados, Broughams and DeVilles from 30 years ago? Cadillac sold more of them in the 70’s than Kmart sold Pet Rocks. Every Cadillac sold in the 70’s had a power steering pump the size of a microwave oven. Which was quite impressive, considering they hadn’t even been invented yet. The power steering was so overboosted you could put your hands in your pocket, and steer the car with your thoughts. And God forbid the power steering pump failed while you were trying to park. You might as well call AAA, because you and three friends would not be able to turn that steering wheel, ever. So, I told you all that so I could tell you this. The ML350’s steering reminded me of all my father’s Cadillacs from the 70’s.

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Acceleration:
Mash the throttle, and the ML350 moves, but it doesn’t like it. The transmission optimizes the entire operation for fuel economy. One day, I was driving 45mph, and glanced at the gauges and realized the engine was only turning 1000 RPMs. That’s less than the cold idle speed. 23 MPG on the highway, however, isn’t bad for 4700 lb. car with 300 hp. If it was acceleration you wanted, you would have purchased the V8, or AMG model, right?

Interior:
If you had to drive cross-country, you could do much worse than the ML350. Large, spacious, with enough supple leather to account for the whereabouts of 2 or 3 missing cows. The COMAND Infotainment is pretty easy to navigate – there’s a convenient wheel in the center console, that falls right under your right hand, where the shift lever used to be. So where is the shift lever? Glad you asked. It’s on the right column stalk, where the windshield wipers used to be. Down for Drive, up for Reverse, and push it in for Park. Note, this is the same motion that operates the windshield washer on many other cars. It will take you about one week to get used to this, and you will forget this the minute you operate another car with a different gearshift pattern, then get back in the ML350 and try and put it in Drive.

2009 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC

All this gearshift performance anxiety vanishes the moment you put in in Reverse, and that gorgeous Reverse Camera view lights up the center console, complete with curved yellow lines overlaying the world behind you. Move the wheel, and the yellow lines curve, showing you exactly what parking spot you can end up in.  It’s like a driving video game, except it’s in reverse at 5 mph, and if you mess up, well, you need to visit the body shop.

Recommendations:
If you’re looking for a plush vehicle to look good getting in and out of, you have found your ride. If you miss the days of silky-smooth over-boosted power steering (and the platform shoes and disco balls that went with it) you will love the ML350. However, if you’re looking for steering that sends you a postcard more than twice a year, and an engine with the grunt to burn rubber in the Beverly Hills Garden Club’s parking lot, now and then, perhaps you may need a different model. Or the same one with a larger engine altogether.

Will someone please explain black wheels to me?

Every time I see a car with expensive black wheels, I think to myself, “Poor guy, he lost his hubcaps.” Then I look closer and realize he paid thousands of dollars for that look.  This makes me cringe.

Maybe I’m from the old school, but when your hubcap falls off, it’s a badge of shame. For one, the whole world now knows you entire wheel set costs $80. You didn’t want people to see your car’s exposed black, dirty wheel, which is as embarrassing as a black eye or a hickey, for everyone would snicker at you, for they knew you were too cheap to buy a $20 hubcap, or lacked the driving chaps to steer around potholes. 

So why would you want to pay thousand of dollars for this look?

Let’s try an experiment. Tell me which car has $4000 wheels, and which one has $40 wheels.

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Had to look pretty closely, didn’t you?

Well, I have an open mind. Leave your comments below.

2014 Mercedes-Benz C-Class C250 sedan review

When I got my C250 from Mercedes, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to drive the same C250 that smoked its tires through an abandoned post-apocalypse Manhattan.

I got inside, stepped on the accelerator, and WHOOOOSH – the car took off. I thought, “Yes! Truth in advertising!!” until I realized I’d been hoodwinked. See, touch the throttle, and the C250 will lurch forward out of your Walmart parking space as hurriedly as if you’d floored it in attempt to pass the Subaru wagon one lane over.  Anything past 4200 RPMs, however, and the engine calls it a day, and you’ll see Subaru tail lights. It looks like they filmed an AMG stunt double in the city that day.

For a 4-cylinder 200-hp turbocharged engine that gets 31 mpg, however, the engine does its job. Those who want a remote chance of burning rubber might upgrade to the optional 6-cylinder engine. (or find out whatever happened to that magical (mythical?) tire-smoking C250 from the commercial?))

Handling:
The C250 has the most sensitive on-center steering the side of a Mini Cooper. The slightest touch on the wheel will dive the vehicle into a corner. Which is fine for racing, however, at highway speeds, it’s a nuisance. You must keep the wheel absolutely still, or else you’ll veer out of your lane. Your mileage may vary, and perhaps it’s just my style, but on long trips, I like to move around in my seat, adjust the stations, slap the kids in the back seat, hydrate, and in the C250, the slightest nudge on the steering wheel causes a hard direction change. Like driving and texting? Forget it. You’ll be in the ditch before your first smiley face. There are ways to make a car’s steering sensitive, without making it a chore to keep going straight. Take a BMW 3-series for a spin, and you’ll see what I mean.

Transmission:
The only available transmission is an automatic. I can talk about how fast, efficiently and sportily it shifts, but if you bought this car, you probably don’t care –  Mercedes’ only model with the a manual transmission is the lowly SLK 250. I will say the transmission shifts fine. If you want more control, put it in manual shifting mode – just don’t expect a lightning-quick, response  – in manual shifting mode, your lever nudge is a suggestion, which gets approved by the transmission committee, eventually.

Engine:
The engine is smooth, and doesn’t announce itself until it nears redline, which is when it sounds like a cargo van – albeit an expensive one with leather seats. I’ve read auto journalist who poo-poo the idea of piping engine sounds through the car speakers, however, in this car, I’m completely for it. Anything would sound better than the stock engine sound at full tilt.

Interior:
The interior is pretty pleasant. Nice leather, clear gauges. The cowl is low, with great outward visibility. The doors close with a satisfying clunk. The cupholder is behind the shift lever, which guarantees your drink will always get in your way while leaning on the center armrest. For years American car publications complained about the lack of cupholders in German cars. Now that we have them, we’re still complaining. Serves us right.

 My model was the stripper, I know, for Mercedes completely went out of their way to rub it in. Note the heated seat button, next to 5 buttons of “features you could have had, were you not such a cheapskate.” Seriously, unless you select $15,000 worth of options, and get the buttons to prove it, every time you look down here, you’ll be bonked on the head about what you could have had.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at . Mar 6, 2014

To unlock the door and start the engine, one must press the unlock button on the key,  insert it into the ignition slot, then rotate it. For those used to keyless entry and ignition systems, (if the key’s in your pocket, just open the door, get in, and push the START button) this can be annoying.

 Exterior:
This is a nice-looking car. However, it’s starting to lose its prestige since the MB CLA250 was introduced. The CLA250, which is a baby sister for the gorgeous and swoopy CL class,  is much better-looking, and starts $6000 cheaper. There will be a new C-Class Mercedes introduced this fall, so we think.

Thankfully, it is not covered with AMG badges – only, however, on all four wheels. Which, in my opinion, cheapens the AMG brand. I’ve driven Mercedes AMG models, and they are terrifyingly fast, world-class pieces of awe-inspiring engineering. That being said, the reverence I feel towards those models diminishes every time I see a 4-cylinder model with an AMG steering wheel, spoiler, door sill, and seat belts. I really believe that prestige and branding is important, and sometimes, auto manufacturers unwittingly do things that diminish it.

Conclusion:
Would I buy one?  Keep in mind this car’s base price is $36,250.  Add an option or two next to those blank spaces near the heated seat buttons, and you’ll have a $50,000 car. A car is about compromises: engine power vs. fuel economy, comfort on long trips vs handling during spirited driving, etc. The Mercedes C250 tries too hard to be a racy car, with it’s hair trigger throttle, and ridiculously sensitive steering. Yes, they’re trying to chase BMW, but in the example, I think they’ve overshot the mark.

The 2012 BMW 335is Advanced Safety Restraint System

My wife handed me some flowers to drop off at my mom and dad’s apartment. It was even her idea to buckle it in.

2014 Kia Soul Review – yes, I actually got into the vehicle

2014 Kia Soul Review

First off, I have to give a disclaimer. I’ve been making fun of Kias for years now. Hey – I’m not mean – they earned it. In the 80’s, they were so cheaply made, they even skimped on the key – my buddy in high school had a Hyundai Excel. the first day he had it, he opened the trunk, and the key broke off inside the latch.

Whenever I see someone with a Hyundai, the first thing I think is, “What a piece of junk.” I know, their quality has improved, however, it’s nearly impossible for a brand to erase a poor first impression.

So, Kias are made in the same factories, using the same parts as Hyundais, and are marketed towards the same budget-conscious customers.

So, one sunny day in Fort Lauderdale, when the Hertz car rental folks told me I was getting a Kia, I cringed.

When the Hertz employee brought it to me, and I saw it resembled an electric banana dustbuster, I winced.

Here it is, waiting patiently in the parking lot while I go get boxes.

Here it is, waiting patiently in the parking lot while I go get boxes.

Let me explain the feeling. Ever get a ride in a friend’s expensive car, and think to yourself, “I sure hope someone sees me!” No one in the history of civilization has ever jumped into a yellow Kia, sat up straight, and thought, “I hope the class bully from elementary school sees me driving THIS hot little pile of potassium!”

So, I loaded my parents into the car. First thing dad said was “Son, I hope no one from the condo association see me in this.” I’m just kidding.

I did ask Hertz for a hatchback, since we needed a little more room than a regular car for their luggage and shopping trips.

Yes, it definitely has more cargo space than a Miata

Yes, it definitely has more cargo space than a Miata

INTERIOR:
When I got behind the wheel, expecting to look around and laugh – I couldn’t do it – that is, the interior looked pretty good – mostly matte black, with red lighted buttons, a la BMW. There was a tasteful white stitching on the shift lever boot. The wheel felt nice and thick. It had little buttons. Seats were reasonable comfortable, but all the weight was on my rear end – I prefer a little curve in my lower back, and lower thighs to even out the pressure.

PERFORMANCE:
You’re kidding, right? Reading the paragraph on performance for a Kia review is like skipping to the gas mileage section on a Range Rover review. Let me be brief: it has a 4-cylinder engine. It’s  the preferred ride of hamsters. If you floor it, it makes a lot of noise, and the only part of your body that gets a visceral reaction is your rear end from all the vibration. If you want to go fast in a Kia Soul, find a downhill.

TECHNOLOGY:
Here’s where I almost actually started to like the car. My iPhone connected via Bluetooth easily. When it rang, the stereo muted, and I could talk to the roof-mounted microphone, hands-free. I could push a steering-wheel button, and tell it who in my iPhone address book to call. It streamed my iPhone’s music library through the stereo flawlessly. Very impressed.

It’s things like a car’s infotainment center than can be the fine line between loving and hating it, and I almost started to like it at this point. But then, I put it in drive.

HANDLING:
You’re joking, right? This car was happiest in a straight line. Long sweeping corners meant re-adjusting the steering 3 or 4 times before the corner was up. Not much feedback from the wheel. Then again, you don’t buy a Kia for the joy of corners.

OVERALL:
If I needed a second car with decent gas mileage, and high-than average utility, I might consider this Kia Soul. Sometimes, it’s not about performance and handling. I don’t see Chevy and Ford pickup truck owners arguing, “My F150 takes has higher tactile feedback in the steering wheel than yours.” My biggest gripe with this Kia is their overly-focused juvenile marketing.

See, in 6th grade, I was embarrassed to own a Rick Springfield cassette because his pouty-lipped mug was on the cover. Rick didn’t want 11 year old boys buying his cassettes. Similarly, I don’t want to be seen in the same vehicle shared by Gen Y female athletes and hamsters. The 2014 Hyundai Tuscon doesn’t have that repulsivity baked-in. But at least, the Kia’s key worked flawlessly.

Why I sold my BMW E46 M3 manual

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Yes, it lost its life after a Night Ranger concert. The Firebird hood decal places just for comic emphasis.

Owning a car with a manual, however, can literally be a pain. I owned a Saab 900 Turbo when I lived in San Francisco, which is possibly the worst city in the United States to own a manual. You can easily spot a manual owner in San Francisco because they walk with a slight limp, due to the fact that their left leg is twice the size of their right leg. And it’s not from starting on a hills that’s so steep that if you drop your car keys on the sidewalk, they’ll slide into the bay. It’s from the 3-miles stop and go traffic on a 5% uphill gradient that keeps you in first gear for 2 hours. Some days I had to depress the clutch with my right leg, my left leg was in so much pain.

Here's my Saab 900 in front of the Brady Bunch house in Century City, CA.

Here’s my Saab 900 in front of the Brady Bunch house in Century City, CA.

Years after that, I owned a 2005 BMW e46 M3 six-speed. The dream driver’s car, right? Not so much. Maybe I’m asking too much, but 95% of its powerband was in the upper revs – in order to pass the minivan next to me, I had to drive it like I was trying to melt the piston rings, causing many minivan drivers to look out their side window with amusement at the car blowing by them, turning the same RPMs of a leaf-blower at full throttle.

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The BMW E46 M3. Fun to shift, corner, and be seen in. Accelerate? Not so much.

Okay, I exaggerate, but that car had about as much low-end power as my Escort. If I was on the interstate in 6th gear, and I needed to pass someone quickly, mashing the pedal did absolutely nothing. I had to downshift to 4th, while blipping the throttle so the engine braking wouldn’t cause my shoulder belt to lock) Oh, and every 100 miles, I had to pull into an ATM to pay for parts and repairs. Everything that broke costed $1200.

When I was looking for a car to replace it, I thought, “Hey, I’m in my 40’s now. Maybe it’s time for an automatic.” And when I need to unexpectedly accelerate, it goes into the correct gear instantly.

So, I bought a BMW E93 335is – bonus, the previous owner installed a Dinan Stage 2 package. And, it felt quicker than my E46 M3, due to its more low-end torque. It works perfectly. It shifts extremely quickly.

I missed blipping the throttle when I downshifted so my drinks didn’t spill. I missed putting it in neutral and coasting down hills. I’m afraid it the battery dies, I’ll have to call a tow truck, instead of bump-starting it. And, worst of all, I hate the feeling of things happening with the transmission happening underneath me that I cannot control.

I tried using the paddle shifters, and the gear shifter. It’s not the same. It’s too easy. Yes, it up shifts in one-quadrillioninth of a second, but all that was involved was my index finger. I like getting my entire body into it – coasting to a stop, rattling the shifter around neutral, while pressing both the clutch and brake at the same time. It’s like the difference between pedaling a bicycle, and riding the bus.

My e93 BMW 335is Dinan Stage 2. Really really fast. Just needs a clutch pedal.

My e93 BMW 335is Dinan Stage 2. Really really fast. Just needs a clutch pedal.

So, my next car will be a manual, I’ve determined. I know, only 5% (and dropping) of autos sold in the US have a stickshift. If auto importers are still sending cars with a clutch pedal to the US by this time next year, I might even buy one.