April 02, 2009

Driven to new lengths: cross-country

   Folks, this marks my final post on the Driven blog, featuring my 10-year-old column, Driven.

   It has been a fun ride for me and I hope for you, too. I want to thank my readers and friends for all their support and comments over the nearly 10 years the column has appeared on the pages and website of The Miami Herald.

   Columns have covered everything from Minis to Maybachs, Boxters to Bentleys, the Ford GT and new Challenger R/T. There were the annual auto shows, and even a personal account of that stainless-steel wonder, the DeLorean, on its 25th anniversary.

   For those who have been here the past decade, you may recall the column first appeared in the Herald's Wheels & Waves section. After the section was discontinued, the column was moved to the Business section and finally online.

   Now it takes yet another turn: It goes cross-country on the McClatchy-Tribune wire service. McClatchy is the parent company of The Miami Herald. The column now will reach hundreds of papers and websites and, hopefully, one near you.

   Meanwhile, enjoy your wheels and always be mindful of your carbon tire track. See you on the road!

Posted by Barry Spyker at 12:40 AM
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March 25, 2009

Floridians take the frugal road

   Floridians are buying fewer cars -- we knew that much. But they continue to buy smarter, economically.

   The top new-vehicle segments in February were midsize cars, compacts and compact SUVs. Same deal for the used-car buyers, according to Cross-sell, a market analyst for auto dealers..

   During February, 50,946 new vehicles and 232,950 used vehicles were titled in Florida, Cross-sell said. These figures compare to 93,839 new-vehicle titles; that's a 45.7-percent dip over last February.

   Used-car titles were 254,684 in February, an 8.5 percent reduction over last year.

Posted by Barry Spyker at 12:13 AM
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March 17, 2009

Chevy Traverse: Some family resemblance, but it has a style all its own

        Few will miss the outdated Chevy Uplander minivan. More will miss the Trailblazer SUV. But all those folks will find that Chevy's all-new Traverse crossover is a wonderful, better equipped surrogate.

        Traverse joins the Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave on General Motors' Lambda platform. Upon closer look, one discovers one can save some money (starting price around $28,000) with the Traverse -- and get what I believe to be a better looking and more capable vehicle.

Traverse         Styling similarities with the popular Chevy Malibu are purely intentional. A bold-looking front has the same mesh grille, projector-beam headlamps, circular tail lights and short overhangs in front and rear.

        Same deal inside: The instrument panel has the dual-cockpit design that extends into the door panels. Instruments get bright trim rings.

        Yet, Traverse still has a style all its own, with two-tone color scheme featuring brushed aluminum and chrome. Gauges, with white numerals on a black background, are easy to read and look good.

        I especially like the roomy feel inside -- plenty of legroom and headroom for six-footers. It seats eight (seven, if you get the second-row captain chairs). And the third row is not just a place to stash the kids. At six-one, I sat back there with decent comfort and stretchability. With a sliding second-row, it's no sweat getting back there, either.

        Cargo capacity is tops among the Lambda family, with 117 cubic feet available with second and third-row seats folded down. With the seats up, an adequate 24 cubic feet leaves space for groceries or luggage.

        OK, now some are saying, if this thing is so big and roomy, it's going to be like driving a Greyhound bus. Not true. It drives like a smaller vehicle, with a secure, car-like handling much like its siblings -- especially considering its heft at 4,720 pounds.

        It leans moderately on corners, but its suspension smoothes out the bumps nicely. Noise from wind and tires is present but not obnoxiously so.

        While some have complained about its quirky shifts, I found the six-speed transmission to shift with relative ease and on queue.

        Squeezing into a tight parking space at the ballpark was not an issue and a rear camera is available for extra security on the way out.

        The front-wheel-drive Traverse (all-wheel-drive is available) get its power from a direct-injection 3.6-liter C-6, pretty much the same one that's in the Cadillac CTS. But it gets around 30 few horses than the CTS, at 275 hp. 

        Mileage is rated at 17 city, 24 highway, which is in the ballpark of other large crossovers in the segment.

        Traverse comes in three trim levels, and even the base LT has tilt/telescoping steering wheel, six-speaker CD/MP3 and GM's OnStar system. The midrange LT gets you 18-ich alloy wheels, eight-way power seats, remote start and power liftgate. Go one better to the LTZ and the Traverse is enhanced with 20-inch wheels, leather seats, heated/cooled seats and navigation system with traffic reporting.

        If you love driving the breezy, sunny days, know that all models offer dual sunroofs. Rear entertainment systems are available, too.

        And a trailer package (this thing has a 5,200-pound towing capacity) is available on all trims and includes heavy-duty cooling system plus hitch.

       There's lots to shop in this segment, including that sweet, new wagon-like Ford Flex. But the Traverse is a strong contender in the group and, among GM's Lambda group, you may find the Traverse even leads the group.

   MSRP: $28,990

   Price as tested (LTZ) $39,810


Posted by Barry Spyker at 11:51 PM
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March 12, 2009

Smart drivers hit the road

   If you're Smart, it's time for a road trip. Some 40 Smart-car owners are gathering and heading out to The Redland on Saturday for a leisurely drive, snacks and shopping.

   It all starts with breakfast at the Smart Center in Coral Gables, then off to Cauley Square Historic Village, strawberry picking at Knaus Berry Farm and even live music later on.

   Have a Smart car? Get on the road and enjoy. Contact Denie Harris for more info at 305-799-2900, or email her at dharris@silverarrow.net

Posted by Barry Spyker at 12:23 AM
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March 04, 2009

Stocks letting you down? Try a collectible car

     With big-name collector-car auctions like Barrett-Jackson and Kruse coming to South Florida in April, and the glamorous Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance March 13-15, it's a perfect time for Hagerty Insurance to come out with its list of best collectibles for every price range.

     The list is based on market accessibility, ease of ownership (parts and information), drivability (safe for today's roads), and strong support (clubs and organizations with which to connect).

     $25,000 -- 50,000: 1972 Mercedes Benz 350SL Roadster, 1965-66 Ford Mustang Fastback or GT fastback, 1969 Buick Riviera GS Hardtop, 1970-73 Datsun 240Z, 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Hardtop Coupe.

     $50,000 -- 75,000: 1954 Dodge Royal Convertible or Pace Car Convertible, 1971-74 Jaguar E-Type Series III Convertible, 1960 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible, 1970 Dodge Charger 440-390 SuperBee Hardtop Coupe, 1968 Mercedes Benz 280SL Roadster.

     And, for the bigger spenders, 75,000 -- 100,000: 1965 Plymouth Satellite 426-425 Convertible, 1969-70 Maserati Mistral Coupe, 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible, 1956-57 Lincoln Continental Mark II, 1970 Mercury Cougar Eliminator BOSS 429 Hardtop Coupe.

     For more info on the April auctions, both in Palm Beach County, visit barrett-jackson.com or kruseinternational.com

Posted by Barry Spyker at 09:34 PM
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February 25, 2009

Harsh reality of new-car dreams

   Thinking of hanging onto that car? You're not alone.

   The recession has hit home -- and the garage. A new study by DriverSide.com and Kelton Research shows that more than four out of every five U.S. car owners now plan to keep their current car longer, due to the bad economic climate.  According to the survey of owners aged 18 and over, 82 percent said they now intend to keep their car longer than originally planned.

   The data confirms the end to the cycle of frequent new car buying. New-car sales, originally predicted to be over 16 million units, plunged to 13.2 million, according to a January report by CSM Worldwide.  The analyst firm also predicts 2009 new car sales will come in at only 11.5 million units, a 27-year low.


Posted by Barry Spyker at 09:15 PM
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February 18, 2009

Nissan Maxima: Reborn for style, performance

        Nissan engineers had a real tough assignment this time around. The Maxima was already a capable, fine-performing luxury-sports sedan -- and it looked darn good, too.

        But this is 2009, and a lot of the competition was looking and performing darn good, too. So, for the seventh generation of Maxima (which debuted 20 years ago as a 1989 model), the assignment: Get emotional, get wild, and anything is open for discussion. Even switching to rear-wheel-drive, which didn't happen but that's OK.

2009 Maxima (3)         Voila! The Maxima was reborn with more exciting looks, 35 more horses yet better mileage figures, a new platform with improved handling, and new interior treatments that put it on a par with Lexus and Infiniti.

        Mission accomplished. Well, almost. The CVT (continuously variable transmission), which is not as disturbing as some, still detracts from the sporty performance this sedan was gunning for. But paddle shifters offer a spirited ride by simulating six gears at the touch of a thumb -- and the shifts are quite responsive, too.

        A drive-sport mode ups the rpm but doesn't do much for acceleration. Sounds better, though.

        Thinking outside the box, Nissan didn't fall for "bigger is better." It actually downsized its flagship by reducing the wheelbase 1.9 inches, shrinking its length by four inches and height by a half-inch.

        It is, in my view, better looking than ever with angled, wraparound headlights like on the racy GT-R sports car, a sleek, sloping hood and wider grille. Its aggressiveness is enhanced with dual exhausts and optional 19-inch wheels

        Maxima is built upon a new platform, what it calls the D platform, same one on which the Altima sits.  Nissan credits it for improved performance and says it negated the need to go to rear-wheel drive because it virtually eliminated torque steer. I guess "virtually'' is the key word here, because there is still some of that torque steer when cornering more aggressively.

        But, generally, performance is excellent, with crisper steering than last year and stiffer suspension. Nissan said it increased body rigidity 15 percent, and front-strut mounts are 100 percent stiffer. Noise and vibration, however, was reduced by mounting the engine at six points instead of four.

        That engine is a modified version of last year's, a 3.5-liter V-6 that puts out 290 hp -- 35 more ponies than '08. Zero to 60 is slightly better, at 6.1 seconds, instead of 6.3.

        In spite of the power boost, mileage was improved a tad to 19 mpg city, 26 highway.

        Inside, perforated-leather seats are firm and supportive. The driver's seat has an optional thigh extension for long hauls. And the new seat design offers more knee room for those in the back seat.

        Interior look and feel is exceptional, really, with rich leather trim, chrome accents around gauges, vent ring and audio switches. The shifter was moved closer to the driver this year for easier grasp. Cruise-control switches are within easy reach of the right thumb -- hand never needs to leave the wheel.

        The big 14.3 cubic-foot trunk can handle golf clubs and big suitcases. There also is a rear-seat pass-through, but the seats do not fold down unless you crawl into the trunk for the latch.

        Maxima is available in two trim levels, the S and SV. Both are well equipeed but the SV adds leather seats, 9-speaker Bose sound system fog lights and turn-signal indicators on the side-view mirrors. Then you can add a sport package or luxury package (think moon roof, sunshades, memory seats and Eucalyptus wood-tone trim and satellite radio).

        Nissan engineers took some positive strides with the new Maxima SV. It is a good-looking, responsive performer, and yet it would be a mistake to call it a true sports car. Maxima's real attraction is its level of comfort and luxurious appointments.

        MSRP: $30,160 to $32,860


Posted by Barry Spyker at 11:08 PM
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January 28, 2009

Mercedes' Bluetecs: Time to rethink diesel

        German engineer Rudolph Diesel surely would be proud to see how far his innovation has come. It was in 1894 when he came up with a variation of the piston engine, one that would use compressed air to ignite the fuel.

        Yes, it won the "Grand Prix'' Award at the 1900 World Expo in Paris, but it was awfully big and dirty and bulky and best for work-horse, low speed chores. Early Mercedes-Benz folks first put it into trucks, then refined it for automotive usage by the 1930s.

        Still, a little dirty, noisy, smelly. I had a diesel in my old '80s VW Rabbit and, while I loved to boast of 50 mpg on the highway, it, too, was noisy and a tad smelly.

R-class2         Now Mercedes has introduced its new Bluetec diesels to several models, including the R320 SUV, and it's time to rethink diesel one more time. Combined with ultralow-sulphur diesel fuel, the Bluetec diesel delivers the economy of a four-cylinder with the power of V-8, plus quiet, clean performance that stands up to any gasoline engine.

        Remarkably, you won't know you're driving a diesel till you pull into the gas station and have to locate the (typically-yellow) diesel pump.

        On the road, it's quiet enough to forget you are driving a V-6 diesel-powered vehicle. Only an attentive ear can detect the subdued diesel rattle.

        There's plenty of power but not-so-brisk acceleration -- Mercedes says the BlueTEC diesel offers 30-50 percent more torque, or pulling power, than comparable gasoline engines. The 210-hp engine puts out 398 foot-pounds of torque. Zero to 60, though, takes nearly 9 seconds.

        Mileage is 20 percent better, with the R320 capable of getting into the low 20s for combined city/highway driving. I managed around 20 mpg combined.

        One caution, however: Diesel fuel these days is considerably higher than regular gasoline and that will factor into your fuel economy. At one station in Central Florida, I paid $4.76 a gallon, though that was some months ago.

        Its seven speed tranny shifts through with ease, up and down, and handling was kept in check with the available Airmatic air suspension system.

        The seven-passenger R-Class has plenty of other draws and, mostly, they pertain to the interior. A sunroof is standard this year, as are a new audio and navigation unit and new voice controls. It wasn't the easiest system to figure out in the short time I drove the R, but there was no manual in the vehicle to assist me,

        Another new feature: All R-Class vehicles are equipped with all-wheel-drive for 2009.

        It is minivan-like in many ways, yet there is a greater level of elegance, featuring leather seats, maple or walnut trim and 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system. Another distinguishing difference between the R-Class and minivans: The rather large rear doors swing out, rather than slide and are a bit more cumbersome.

        Fold the seats down and it delivers 85 cubic feet of cargo space -- quite decent, not quite minivan capacity.

        All R-Class models get traction and stability control, brake assist and side curtain air bags for all three rows.

        This is a fine people-hauler with the luxuries you expect from Mercedes. As for the diesel decision, well, half of the cars in Europe are diesel. And know that diesels continue to find their niche in the U.S., with one forecaster saying that diesel will account for 15 percent of cars and light trucks here by 2015.

        The Bluetec burns cleaner fuel, is quieter and offers more pull per square inch. It may just change the way you think about diesels.

           MSRP: $49,150


Posted by Barry Spyker at 12:36 AM
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December 30, 2008

Dawn of a new year: Speed, style rule

   OK, as we approach 2009 it's time to make certain all issues have been boxed away neatly for 2008.

   Fuel prices reasonable again for the open road? Check.

   Fuel efficiency improving again? Check.

   First installment of automakers' bailout complete? Check.

   Automakers' restructure complete? Well, three out of four ain't bad.

   As we peer into the new year, there is plenty to be excited about, automotively speaking. Automobile Magazine, in fact, already has unveiled its list of the "most exhilarating, ingenious, awe-inspiring'' of the '09 models.

   Winners are featured in its February issue, on newsstands Tuesday. Let's peek at the Top 10:

   Audi R8 -- Dramatic inside and out, the R8 is wide, low, and purposeful.

   BMW 3-series -- BMW’s masterpiece of all-things-to-all-people engineering remains more fun than anything that’s more practical and more practical than anything that’s more fun.

Zr1   Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 (pictured) --  The world has produced faster cars, but few offer the same combination of sound, speed, and exhilaration. 60 mph comes in first gear (in 3.7 seconds) and 91 mph in second.

   Chevrolet Malibu -- The quiet American on this year’s All-Stars list: a sedan with crisp handling, commutative steering, a properly tuned ride, and an overall feeling of quality.

   Ford Flex -- A cabin that is a masterpiece of ergonomic engineering and chock-full of high-tech features, the Flex concentrates on refinement and emphasizes style while being as practical as a minivan.

   Honda Fit -- The new model’s extra polish elevates the small-car experience with hidden features, a sleeker exterior, a smoother gearbox, and a nicer cabin.

   Jaguar XF -- It is beautiful, composed and powerful. The XF is impressively quick and refined, too.

   Porsche 911 -- From its birth in 1964 to the arrival of an improved edition last year, the Porsche 911 has been a rare island of tranquility amid the automotive industry’s seas of turmoil. The fortified sixth-generation 911 is gutsier and quicker accelerating, yet it squeezes an additional mpg or three from very gallon of premium.
   Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG -- Other cars in the AMG portfolio are faster, but this one is the most fun.

   Volkswagen GTI -- With a new version of the GTI due in the U.S. in September, this one is still high on performance, comfort, and functionality.


Posted by Barry Spyker at 09:15 PM
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December 23, 2008

A second chance to meet the Challenger

           Just as Phil's pals in the movie City Slickers urged him to embrace his marital and job woes as a "do-over'' -- a second chance -- carmakers sometimes offer a second opportunity to seize that model you could once only dream about.

        Sometimes the retro version is a mere imitation and we pass on it. Sometimes, like with this beefy Dodge Challenger, you simply can't resist the attraction.

        And, for 2009, comes the sorely missed manual tranny, a six-speed regulated by the classic pistol-grip shifter of the early '70s. Was not available with the introductory '08 model.

Challenger         Challenger, the nameplate that ruled the muscle-car era alongside the likes of GTO, Mustang and Chevelle, debuted as a 2008 model. That's the one I spent a week in, followed by gawking men and smiling women everywhere, many of them too young to know the original.

        There is no mistaking that this is the son of the old Challenger, which ruled the "strips'' between 1970 and 1974. One 50-something woman reacted: "Wow, that is beautiful," she said, unable to exactly identify it. "How old is it?"

        "Oh, it's brand new," I said. The Challenger has the same wide, aggressive grille with fog lamps and attitude, reminiscent of its kin. An expansive hood has twin scoops that actually offer venting for the 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 underneath.

        A lower front spoiler also is functional, offering cooling to the brakes. Rear tail-light cover spreads across the entire width of the car. And the rear spoiler works, too, offering significant rear downforce, says Chrysler.

        Chrysler figures the 40-something crowd wants this car most, but so does my 25-year-old son, Brett, And he's a pickup-truck kind of guy. 

        With 425 horses (exact same as the 1970 Hemi Challenger) and 420 foot-pounds of torque, the rear-wheel-drive beast sprints to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. And its clear badging reminds you the power source is a 6.1-liter Hemi.

        As Motor Trend magazine points out, it'll be outgunned by the Mustang Shelby GT500, but only by four-tenths of a second. Hey, who's counts tenths, really? (It's also more than $4,000 less than the Stang.)

        Top speed is listed at 170 mph -- Chrysler does not believe in electronic limitations.

        Even at high speeds, the five-speed automatic is game, kicking in when you punch it. But the '09 six-speed manual will truly ignite the driving enthusiast.

        New for '09 SRT8 a limited-slip differential for stronger track performance.

        Challenger sits on the Charger platform but has a somewhat softer suspension. Bad for handling, you say? Let's call it a compromise, but Challenger is surprisingly agile and will be enjoyed in the twistys. But keep a close eye on your sides and rear as visibility is hampered by broad rear pillars.

        The red Brembo calipers provide superb braking.

        Mileage is going to be in the teens, and the low teens if you're getting some kicks. But with new trims this year, an available V-6 will get a combined EPA-rated 21 mpg. Same great looks, better mileage, tamer ride.

       This bad boy, by the way, will get in the low teens when it comes to mpg, and that means an extra couple grand in gas guzzler tax.

        Chrysler did a remarkable job with the seats, a perfect combination of support with bolstered sides and comfort, with soft but cushions you could enjoy all night. This year a red accent stripe is added as well as accent stitching.

        The gauge cluster, dark headliner and slanted shifter console are reminiscent of the original Challenger. Monitor your speed on the 180-mph speedometer. More details are available on the SRT-exclusive display that offers instant performance figures on 0-60 times, quarter-mile time and even G-forces.

        Cargo capacity is surprising with 16.2 cubic feet of space.

        The last model year was for the true Challenger devotee, but '09 promises something for everyone who has ever lusted after it. Besides the 6.1-liter and 5.7-liter Hemis, a modest 3.5-liter V-6 is available.

        You can get into Challenger for as low as $22,000 for the V-6 and figure on around $40,000 for the nasty one.   

        The beauty of today's Challenger, of course, is that it is laden with today's technology, including traction and stability control systems, six multistage air bags, MP3 and Bluetooth capability.

        Go figure the luck that this sweet Challenger debuts when gas prices are on the fall. There must be a God.

        I shouldn't even mention that Dodge is one-upping the Challenger nameplate this year with an SRT10 Concept, powered by Viper's screaming 8.4-liter V-10 engine and its herd of 600 ponies. There, I said it. You have to deal with it.

      Dodge Challenger SRT8: $37,320 (base price)


Posted by Barry Spyker at 11:34 PM
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