Go backwards – drive a manual

6-speed manual transmission

It happened very quickly.

Jay, my oldest son, was shopping for a newer car to replace his dying (and uncool) Toyota Corolla. He invited me to look at a car he was considering. I drooled, and he yawned. The car was just not his style – but it did fit my age group rather well.

Heather, Rachel and I played around with the idea of replacing our Honda Fit that year-older German car – with very little difference between each sale price. Our discussion turned into action… within a week, the title was signed over to us.

But it has a manual transmission.

A few years back, I said that I’d probably not get another car with a manual – you know, it’s just too much work in any stop-and-go commute.

But the car was so nice. The previous owner had maintained it meticulously and kept complete service records. “Only Mobil 1 for oil changes.” I could tell he was not lying, judging by the condition of every part of the car.

After a few weeks of driving, I realize that the extra effort of shifting has faded into the background. I love it.

Don’t say, “never again.”


The joy of the old

Jay next to an MG Midget

Jay and I went for a test drive in a 1967 MG Midget. He was the driver, as his 2001 Toyota Corolla burns a quart of oil for every two tanks of gas and it’s nearing time for a replacement.

We both were surprised at how small the car is – and at how 30 mph seemed like 70 mph.

Alas, a much newer car can be had for the same money – and one that wouldn’t need $500 worth of work to be road-legal.

But what a piece of history!

The intricate wire wheels aren’t available on any new car, regardless of price. The engine was so simple that it wouldn’t take an engineering degree to change the spark plugs. And what joy to drive a car that no-one else drives!

It was a marriage not meant to be. When the quick honeymoon ended, the heartaches would begin.

Epilogue: In a recent issue of Autoweek, a 1967 Datsun Roadster – a direct competitor – sold for ten times what the MG was going for.


Shift it yourself

manual shifting jaguar roadsterA shift has been under way for years in automotive culture – the move from manual transmissions to automatics.

At the Denver Auto Show, Jaguar was so proud of offering a car with a manual transmission that they plastered that fact on the door.

I made the shift myself about five years ago. I used to love manual transmissions. The old story was that you could squeeze more performance and fuel economy out of your vehicle with a manual transmission. Now it’s the opposite for many newer vehicles.

And there’s the drawback of the pain of shifting in stop-and-go traffic. My last two years in Nairobi, Kenya taught me that it’s no fun to keep shifting over and over in heavy traffic. I almost vowed to never get a manual transmission again.

Then again, if someone offered me a new Mazda Miata with a manual for free, I would not turn them down.

Tip: One way to save fuel with an automatic transmission is to pop it into neutral while going down a mild hill. (Use this tip at your own risk. Results may vary. Some users have been known to have increased blood pressure.)



A few weeks back, my car was in the shop for some body work. (An unfortunate accident had occurred that meant some repairs were due.)

I took advantage of my insurance company’s connection with Enterprise Rentals to get a quirky car to drive during the repairs – the Fiat 500L.

Overall, I enjoyed the car’s quirkiness. (It had a few quality issues, but that’s another story.)

fiat 500l drivers manualThe manual was completely worthless – a CD. When inserted into the car’s CD drive, it would not do anything except display an error message. The only way to view the contents was to bring it home and put it into a computer with a CD slot. Then a program had to be installed to make it run!

What happens when a driver is 50 miles from nowhere and has a flat tire? The compressor in the back (no spare tire) had no instructions.

Fiat – please do a little more thinking next time!


Old cars vs. new cars

Ford Galazy 500I snapped this old beauty on the way to work a week or so ago. I love the blocky style of the mid-1960s Ford Galaxy 500. It weighs enough to stop a tank, should the driver encounter one on his way to work. It has no airbags or shoulder belts, so his safety was in his own hands.

I do love the style of old cars. But they pollute. The gas coming out of the tailpipe is significantly more polluting than what a modern car produces. Paris, Santa Barbara, California and Texas all have programs to take old cars off the road.

But it’s not necessarily an easy equation. Sometimes keeping your not-very-new car may be more environmental than buying a new one, because of the environmental impact of manufacturing a car (details).

I would totally support a ban on really old cars being daily drivers, or maybe a tax on using them as commuter cars. That would keep the environment cleaner. And the drivers would have less chance of getting in an accident and ruining that piece of history. Additionally, fewer drivers are out on the weekends, so each drive would be more pleasurable. Why not create an old car sharing club and split which weekends you get the old beauties? Then you will have some variety in which ancient iron you take to the highway.


Why would they buy it?

Automobile magazine article on the sale of a $8 million FerrariThis Ferrari sold for more than $8 million. Yes, million. And it’s probably older than you are.

I tried to think through what would motivate someone to spend that much money on such an old car.

1. It’s art. Yes, it is a beautiful car. And it’s almost as rare as a Picasso painting.

2. The collector is hoping the value will increase. That is a bet; markets could crash and what a singer named Larry Norman sang a long time ago, “A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,” might come true.

3. The collector has enough money that they are not worried about what brand of laundry detergent to buy.

4. The collector has never been to a slum in Africa or Asia.

5. The collector has enough money to pay insurance for his or her occasional drives. (One year’s insurance must be more than the cost of my house.)

Do you have any ideas on what they were thinking?

Special thanks to Automobile Magazine, where this was featured.


Review: Fisker Karma vs BMW 335d

Update: This was written in 2012. Since then, BMW has released a 3-series hybrid. Fisker no longer sells the Karma but are planning to sell the Motion model, at some point. Having gone out of business and now back in business, I would guess they are figuring out things like funding.

Fisker Karma carSuper high-performance and green? As you think about your next luxury sedan, you may be thinking about buying a Fisker Karma.

I say that fully kidding – I know that none of my readers are thinking about buying a Fisker Karma.

Anyhow, I read with interest a Car & Driver magazine review of the new Fisker Karma. Think of it as a much faster Chevrolet Volt with a super beautiful body.

The gas engine powers a generator that charges an electric motor that moves the wheels. So it can run only on electric power for about 25 miles.

Why am I comparing the $116,000 Karma to a $44,000 BMW 335d? Here are several reasons:

1. Performance? The BMW is faster than the Karma… BMW = 0-60 miles per hour in 5.3 seconds. The Fisker does 6.1 seconds.

2. Interior room? Similar.

3. Quality of materials, fit and finish? Similar.

4. Fuel economy? BMW wins… 27 miles per gallon vs. the Fisker’s 24.

5. Green? Disposing of all those lithium-ion batteries when they fail to hold a charge anymore will be a nightmare. And diesel is more dirty than gas in some measures but cleaner in others.

BMW 335dThe Fisker is a clear winner in the distinctiveness realm. You won’t see another on your block, guaranteed – no matter where you live. But for everything else, the BMW wins.

A final note: the Porsche Panamera E-Hybrid is definitely a closer vehicle to compare. It costs a closer $100,000, does 0-60 in 4.4 seconds and gets similar fuel economy to the BMW.

Photos are courtesy of the Fisker and BMW websites.


Fun vs. Practical

Letter to Automobile magazineThis letter appears in the December 2011 issue of Automobile Magazine.

I love writing letters to the editor. This is my 15th or 16th letter to get published in a national or international magazine. I get a buzz out of seeing my name in print. Egotistical? Maybe. (Forgive me for that, if it’s true.)

Roughly the same amount of time it would take for you to comment on a blog post – and have 21 people see it – can yield a few more views, if your thoughts are published in a magazine. Print may be dying, but there is still a good number of people who read printed magazines. Obviously, I’m one.

If you’d like to read more of the dead Volvo story, it’s in my previous blog.

And here’s Ezra’s column. The December Automobile Letters to the Editor section had more letters about that column than I’ve ever seen focusing on any article or column before.


One step forward, two back

Mobile charging stationI doubt if you read Autoweek magazine. That’s why I’m sharing this story from the October 31, 2011 issue.

AAA now has trucks devoted to charging stranded electric cars in six different US cities. At the moment, that would only be two vehicles – the Nissan Leaf and the Mistubishi i. And there are maybe 25 actual cars floating around the US. So it’s a near-future-oriented program.

Anyhow, I was amused at the thought of a relatively low fuel economy truck being driven across town to charge up an “ultra-green” car. It kind of defeats the purpose.

Another strange thing is that the trucks charge up the cars to travel another 3-15 miles … to “reach a charging station.” Good luck finding a charging station. You might know that most fully-electric cars take about 24 hours to charge from a regular household circuit. (A devoted 240- or 480-volt outlet drops the full charge time down to 3-6 hours.)

My constructive suggestion? Use a much cheaper tow truck and tow the car to the owner’s home. Or an office or store that has an electric extension cord.

Electric cars aren’t ready for prime time. Yet.


Chevrolet Sonic Review

Opel CorsaThe Opel Corsa is the European version of the USA’s Chevrolet Sonic.

The Corsa (shown) is a great little car. Our family of five did a day trip of 160 kilometers (100 miles) across Belgium and Holland without any problem, in spite of the relatively small size. The feeling of quality was evident in all the controls, how solidly the doors shut and in my general perception of the components being substantial.

The Corsa/Sonic handles well. It was quite comparable to the Ford Fiesta I drove a few days before driving the Corsa.

Sadly, the Sonic has an ugly front end, but it’s still a good car – far better than the Aveo, which it replaces in the Chevrolet line-up. The Aveo was based on a relatively cheap quality Suzuki.

A huge difference between the car you can buy in Europe and the USA model is more than cosmetic – the European models can be bought with diesel engines. In the 1.3 liter model we rented, I recorded about 43 miles per gallon. According to Opel’s website,* the gas (petrol) model gets about 23% less fuel economy. (And the Sonic will get even less fuel economy than the European gas model.)

I found the power from the small turbodiesel to be more than adequate. We’re not talking sports car territory, but it had more power than our Toyota Corolla, which has an engine that is almost 1.5 times bigger than the Corsa’s.

I’m just sad that American cars don’t get such great small engines – when they are already being made and sold in the rest of the world.

And finally, here is a great article on why America just doesn’t get diesel cars, from Automobile Magazine. (It’s a PDF. And copyright pardons, please. And forgive the poor quality of the scan; I spilled water on the page.)

* Note that this link is to the Vauxhall Corsa, England’s version of the Opel Corsa.