Saturday, June 7, 2014

Notes from The Book of Snaudi ...

Some more fallout from your unhumble Car Czar's recent purchase of an Audi A3 arrived in the mail the other day.  On this occasion instead of a new insurance adjustment came a hefty square box: just the size to hold some cool little Audi branding geegaw.

A key ring made of four rings?  Quattro drink coasters?  Ergonomically imperfect brass knuckles?

The box was opened, and inside was a fancier box bearing the hallowed silver rings. Inside the fancy box was a fancy book.  It had pictures and words in it, and yours truly's name was printed on the dust jacket in the "hey, look ... that's my name on there" way of novelty T-shirts from the 70s.

Would this precious little book proffer a brand-building history recap of Germany's Bauhaus automotive design house?  Maybe explore the days-gone-by racing cred of those supercharged Silver Arrows from the 30s Grand Prix campaigns?

Not so much.

Instead, Page One provides an answer key to the question no one asked.

The bearer of the fancy book celebrating the fancy automotive marque is instructed on the correct pronunciation of the word "Audi" (see here, good man: it rhymes with "cloudy") ... and is given the mandate to spread the word to the rubes in his or her social-climbing circle who might insist on "confidently" mispronouncing the name.

Oh, the silly plebs!  It's too late to save them from saying "Porsh," as it is.  They still can't figure out why Kirsten ("Actually, it's pronounced 'Keersten'") at the Sigma Chi ("Actually, it's pronounced 'Sigma Ki'") party just rolled her eyes at them and left with Thom ("Actually, it's pronounced 'Thad.'  The 'o' and 'm' are silent and replaced by 'a' and 'd' as often seen in Shakespeare's original manuscripts  ...").

On subsequent pages there are more assurances that the purchaser of this fine automobile belongs to a select  and "in-the-know" crowd.  But in case the new Audi pilot really is just another not-in-the-know Toyota Type who has stretched for the most easily reached silver rings on a lease special, more Seussian snoot awaits.

Did the new "Aoudy" initiate know that the marque produces no fewer than five shades of black?  (Because there's nothing worse than showing up to dinner in the wrong shade of black ... say, black with subtle metallic hints of coffee ... because it's dinner, you sot.  Don't you feel silly now, parked next to the black A5 rocking metallic flecks of after-dinner absinthe?).

Did the new Aoudy initiate know that the pre-painted body of A8s are polished with ostrich feathers?  That the hides on RS models are oiled-in by Scarlett Johannson's bare bottom in a special room kept at 90-degrees Fahrenheit?  (I'll bet you wish I hadn't made that last one up).

All of which begs these questions:

Do the pretentious twits we come across in everyday life come about their smug overconfidence via nature or nurture?  Did their uppity parents pass it down or teach it, or is there simply a handbook out there for assholes-in-training?

Well, there is a handbook of sorts, and it is apparently sent out to new U.S. owners of Audi's latest small sedan.  But the existence of this ode-to-being-better-than-ye pretty much contradicts the idea that "Audi" rhymes with "Cloudy."

"Otty" is the rhyme that comes to mind, along with the imagery of a four-year-old whose nose won't stop running.

While we're on the subject of this new Audi, at eight-weeks-in your unhumble Car Czar reports -0- problems and miles of imperturbable mach schnell!

One's sense of well-being spikes merely upon entering the simple but finely-finished cabin of this new A3. This little sedan is so well put together and so at-home on any pavement at any speed ... all the while returning 28 mpg mixed ... that certainly no one needs a pompous PR primer to feel special about it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Fixing Road & Track: Two Handfuls of Paper and a Quarter-mile Trap

Remember a few years back when Car and Driver lost its way? In short, the executive editor with the unpronounceable name fell asleep at a Ferrari press event and awoke mid-startled-snore. It was a short, semi-public vignette which effectively summed up his several indifferent years running the magazine. All fixed, thanks a new crew which embraces the original snark and chutzpah of The Man, road test fabricator and unrecognized poet David E. Davis Jr.

Road & Track has a different story. Born an enthusiast book just as sports cars and muscle cars were making the roads interesting, this magazine has always reached for the wine & cheese crowd to Car and Driver’s on-again-off-again babes, beer, and flatulence fans and Motor Trend’s thirteen year old boys who just want to know when they’re going to release the flying car.

For decades we could count on R&T to elevate underpowered, over-priced EuroDandy sedans far above over-powered, reasonably-priced Joe Six-pack pieces from The Land of Big Gulps (the latter of which, in fairness, were at times junk). Despite the appearance of literary geniuses like Henry Manny III and Early Peter Egan, R&T has through the years battled C/D pretty much like a repressed librarian casting disapproving glances at Bruce Willis while he marks his loaner pages with chewed gum.

Then The Great Media Consolidation found both magazines with a common owner.

(Cue Sound Effect: We Know How this Ends).

For a few years, an issue of Road & Track was like an issue of Car and Driver: Same car tests, minor plot twists, but at least with the classic R&T data summary at the end of the book. Even the April Fools issue showed up once a year.

Then everything got all shook up. Most of the west coast staff at R&T got the boot so that the magazine could cheaply regroup in Michigan. Former C/D tech editor Larry Webster, who was best known in the Hogback Road days for auto-crossing Miatas and worshiping BMWs, took the R&T helm. Not a bad move on its face: a car guy instead of some corporate Dockers drone who just looks good on TV. But with this move apparently came an obliquely-cloaked mandate to tick-off the subscriber base at R&T and shuffle everybody over to C/D. You know: Kill Pontiac. They'll buy Buicks and Chevys instead.

First, the road test data summary (a.k.a. the only thing R&T had going for it by then) went, though it reappears in the magazine at random times, sort of like Anti-Skid Deactivated warning lights in modern VWs. Then, entire issues were purged of comparison tests and new car reviews in favor of tributes to venerable cars turning 50. Next, entire issues were purged. Say hello to Jan/Feb and other consolidations as needed.

Nowadays you get a magazine of the same thickness on fewer occasions at the same price, and of course, you’re not certain why. Gone are the elegant draftsman’s drawings and road test data panels that were OCD before OCD was cool. In their place is what is possibly a page-bound playground of Everything Larry Likes surrounded by a mix of excellent and meh editorials ... but thankfully none of the Get a Bigger Dick ads the people who make jealous jokes about flashy cars and small penises use as ammunition (I'm talkin' ta you, C/D).

This is a swell legacy for Larry: he really is a car guy, and really has paid his dues. None of it bodes well for the survival of R&T, however. The mag’s recent skeleton crew move from its west coast home to within please-clean-out-your-desk-and-see-Human-Resources distance of Car and Driver HQ in Ann Arbor suggests Larry’s Playground may get about the same run as Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

And now that Motor Trend has successfully melded the practical wit and enthusiasm of Jonny Lieberman with the articulate track genius Randy Pobst, The Big Three U.S. Car Magazines1 are looking more like GM, Ford, and Chrysler in the 80s: Two clear survivors and one runt that will be shunted around for decades and become many things ... if it doesn’t die by its own management first.

Yet Chrysler’s decades in the wilderness, while painful to watch, gave us 25k Jeep Wranglers with 50k Mercedes engines in them. The Viper. Hemi-powered tribute bands. Maybe some reliable “Italian” cars. Recall that Audi spent most of the first century of automobiles consolidating and trading-out companies and mission statements in this way, but look what’s come rocketing out of the 21st-century woods in a four-wheel drift rocking laser eyes.2

Since the wine and cheese of Bimmers and Porsches compete with the craft beer and small bites of Ring-ripping Cadillacs and Corvettes nowadays, there really is no place for the snooty Euro-pure patter of yesteryear’s Road & Track, anyway.

Here’s a secret hiding in plain sight on an internet blog: Some readers enjoy poring over tons of data against all that subjective whining about wheel gaps and pinch-y cup holders, but only during certain specific and confined moments of solitude. These are highly holy moments like those between lust and babies, but longer. Grunty, earthy, reflective, and spiritual stints where real car guys seek automotive data during what Webster's once referred to as "data dumps" before Mrs. Webster's made him stop.

Data panels from real road tests. Road Test summaries.

Please put them back on the easily-folded and left-hand-able skin of dead trees, R&T, or get off the pot.

I am the Car Czar, and I’m here to help.

1Road & Track circulation has fallen nearly even with Automobile circulation, so "The Big Three" is a moving target.

2Yes, there was Big Incest going on while Audi was out in the woods, but that’s a story for the Keen Grasp of the Obvious blog we promise to never to write at a later date.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Lawsuits on the Road to Perdition

File #1: You Can’t Crash This

Yeah, I know. We're not too far off from the self-driving car. Today’s Camry pilots will someday get to sit in a circle and play Parcheesi all the way to Poughkeepsie. Today’s Mustang and GTI drivers might be permitted to mix with this New Roadway Order, though possibly with the same public stigma that smokers currently enjoy.

But in the meantime -- and by "meantime" I mean the several decades it will take to meld tech, infrastructure, and humans into roadway harmony -- it would be great if the manufacturers at the forefront of driver aids would quit telling drivers that their cars will keep them safe from running into stuff.

I'm talking to you, Mercedes-Benz.

See, most automakers are developing protect-us-from-ourselves tech nowadays, but you're the only manufacturer who in advertising that tech appears, as it was so popular to say on the internet years back, to be smoking crack.

There's this little matter of your TV ad with the smirky brunette being safely shepherded out of The Valley of the Shadow of Demolition Derby Jalopies by the collision avoidance tech in your M-Class, see.

This is time-tested advertising hyperbole that works when you're trying to exaggerate some whimsical vehicle characteristic like speed or status, but is possibly a terrible idea when you're exaggerating your car's ability to intervene in life or death matters. To make matters worse, in a gift to attorneys the world over, your ever-liquidy-smooth Mersnooties Voiceover Guy (yeah ... talkin’ ta you, John Hamm) intones, "It’s almost like it couldn’t crash even if it tried."

Challenge accepted, said the man on the street, who is reporting back on internet forums even as we blog.

I know. The Internet, right? But some of it might be true.

There's a fellow on one forum who reports that the Collision Prevention Assist on his CLA didn't work very well when he accelerated and changed lanes into the back of a stopped car at a red light.

And another fellow in another CLA was left scratching his head and looking for clues from his web forum friends after he ran into a delivery truck on a blind left turn.

(OK ... bad sample, these CLAs, which appear to be driven mainly by fly 20-somethings still living in their parents’ McMansions and learning about the whole Driving Thing on the side).

Not to worry too much about these anecdotal crackups.  It's up to society to worry about keeping these cretins off the road, but you, Mercedes, should be worried about giving them a trademarked and heavily-advertised reason to wonder about whether the car brand that couldn't get in a collision if it wanted to has failed them ... not to mention those attorneys above, who never met a gray area they couldn't turn into black ink.

By all means, Merc, make your cars crash-proof. But don’t advertise them as crash-proof, because America’s roadways are full of drivers who are far more clever than the sum of your all-time engineering brain trust, including the department who solved the problem of seats that don’t massage and squirt vanilla lavender.

This is America, Freidbeitch, and if you advertise cars that almost can’t crash but do crash, you’re gonna get sued.

File #2 A Biblical Homage to Information at Your Fingertips ... and a Steering Wheel for if you get Bored

In the Beginning there was Tire Hum, Wind, and Engine Clatter. But the Road Gods deemed that road-going drone should have a partner, so the Road Gods created radios. Radios begat tape decks, which begat CDs, MP3s, and then melodies from above the firmament.

And the Road Gods looked and listened and said it was good, or at least better than listening to Aunt Millie go on about her cataract surgery.

Then everything you wanted to know about anyone and anything anywhere came to pass. It transfixed the populace and became very portable. It displayed news, weather, and eventually the unexplainably fashionable large butt of an unexplainably fashionable woman named Kardashian.

The Road Gods paid this news no heed, because, you know, Road Gods, right?

Alas, Markup, son of Optional Extra, was casting about one day in the village of Dumbasscus, fretting that after multi-color footwell lighting there was truly nothing new under the sun. Markup's daughter Upsell heard her father's grumbling and that evening stole away to the house of Zuckergates and lain with Mark IV, offspring of Mark I, and soon a child was born. The child was named ADDin, who would grow into a vehicle of equal parts windscreen and touchscreen, so that now you could drive down the road wondering if the large ass in front of you was a jacked pickup truck viewed from your windscreen or Kim Kardashian’s fiancĂ© viewed from your dash-mounted touchscreen.

The marketchangers in Dumbasscus drank wine and celebrated this child for a fortnight, and soon messengers were sent to the distant villages heralding the coming of the twin screens displaying the right-in-front-of-you-asses and the out-in-Hollywood-asses. But, hark! ... the Road Gods looked upon this splitting of the asses as an abomination, and caused the same nitwits who were killing themselves looking at their phones instead of the road to kill themselves by looking at dash-mounted Instagrams of Applebee’s entrees, monkeys peeing on each other, and other stuff.

And from high on the mountaintops and low in the valleys came a great flood of certified mail and press releases from the firms of Bottomfeeder & Shitkowitz, et al. ... and all of them said, “You’re gonna get sued.”

I am the Car Czar, and I'm here to help.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Pothole Post

Dear City Street Departments of America:

It's been a rough winter and we have potholes everywhere.

You are not doing anyone favors by sending three guys and one shovel out in a truck to dump gravel in the potholes.

You are not doing anyone favors by sending three guys and one shovel out in a truck to slop loose asphalt in the potholes.

See, cars drive into this stuff right after your several-hundred-$$-an-hour crew leaves, and they spread your indifferent deposits all over the place.

All we end up with is rocks in the streets and the same old potholes.

Then you have to send a street sweeper out to collect up all the rocks.

And then you (and by "you" I mean "we") have to pay three guys to mess the streets up all over again.

Your work never ends.

Oh, never mind.  I get it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Germany on Five Bucks a Day (or so ...)

A Tale of Three Teutons and One Garage

Dear German Big 3:  After decades of gypping the entry-level market on horsepower, I notice you’re selling compelling little cars with real motors for Camaro money.  So I shopped you.  I drove you.  I decided some decisions.

A bunch of thought bubbles popped up over my head in this exercise, and the biggest one was: Are these things really good values in their own right, or just up-badged smoke & mirrors?  In a new land of 40k Buicks and 60k Cadillacs, I think it's a fair question.  

Here's what my left brain and right brain came up with.

Dear Mercedes: The CLA coupe stole my heart.  I ignored the door count, doubted the likelihood of the production product remotely resembling your stunning concept car, and waited for launch.  At the dealership I was surprised to see you pretty much delivered on the show car promise.  Except when you look at this car from the front, where the CLA is rocking a top-heavy funny-car-shell-over-subcompact-car look, this is gorgeous, and any awkwardness up front is forgiven by that really nice butt.  The interior is beautiful too, save for that big honking fixed Tom-Tom screen you stuck on the dash.  Why you do that?

The car is a sharp handler, and really hits most of the three-pointed-star cues on fit and finish.  The package looks like it cost twice as much.

Here’s why I didn’t buy your car:  This car handles like a Volkswagen GTI and rides like one, which is to say, brilliant and on the choppy side.  But you can get a better-equipped, if much uglier Golf GTI for 5k less, and you can fit adults comfortably in the back seat of a GTI.  Those of us in the Great White North still wonder what you were thinking, putting summer tires on all the 18” wheel options when front-wheel-drive with all-season tires is such an OK way to get through a polar vortex.  Those of us living anywhere but Germany also wonder why you’re confident enough in our roadways to send us off from the dealership with nothing but run-flat tires and a can of tire goo.  You guys should come over here sometime and see what passes for “pavement” between New York and St. Louis.  Well-intentioned but annoying engine start/stop tech doles out no warm fuzzies, either.

Dear BMW: The 228i is the essence of your brand.  Ate up with motor, 200 pounds lighter than the I-6, 50-50 weight distribution ... available with a clutch pedal.  It’s the pick at this price range, so long as you’re willing to forego foo foo like leather, Xenons, etc.  I’m not dinging you for summer tires since you stayed true to your rear-wheel-drive performance heritage here.  Anybody living north of the Mason-Dixon will certainly price a good set of snow tires in the acquisition scenario for this kind of car.

Here’s why I didn’t buy your car: SWMBO says we have enough coupes.  And besides that. you too have chosen The Really Annoying One-MPG-Saving Run Flat, Start/Stop SetupTM.   But that’s pretty much it.  I suppose I should include the 320i in this comparison, but at this price point you nicked the horsepower a bunch and you’re charging extra for a folding back seat.  Harumph.

Dear Audi:   Your concept A3 didn’t catch my attention.  It is the same shiny suppository that all Audis are.  And I’m afraid your initial advertising campaign hasn’t attracted my attention, either, steaming hot as Ricky Gervais is.  Hipster Launch Party?  Well, that’s tonight, and I’m not going.  (And neither are the hipsters, I’ll wager.  Your leaked party PDF suggests the people you invited aren’t off the clock at Whole Foods until sometime around the After Party.  You did plan an After Party, right?).  I did look at the spec sheet for the new A3, only to double-check the price.  Really?  All that for that?  Now that caught my attention.

So anyway, Here’s why I bought your car: Because I am a calculated risk taker.  I’m taking the risk that your terrible reliability record just has to be resolved after a decade or so of experience with this basic engine/tranny combo.  Mercedes, BMW, and even Volvo have had their bad years too, right?  My Calculated Risk-O-Meter was bang-on with the thumping GM muscle cars I still happily own after 16 years, despite all the black circles they suffered from the granola-munching Subaru Huggers at Consumer Reports way back when.  You better not let me down. 

I also bought your car because there is not a thing about the 2015  A3 2.0 quattro that insults my meager intelligence.  It’s got AWD, Xenons, a sunroof, and leather that is always missing at this price point.  I am average height, and I can sit behind myself with the driver seat adjusted to my driving position, meaning my DNA-cursed progeny will get along back there just fine.  It’s a tidy little car that really is equipped with everything most new car buyers want, and at a very reasonable price.  It is possibly the perfect little car for those of us who live in bad weather for half the year and still want a car that exceeds the performance envelope of some E36 M3s.

Oh.  And did I mention this car has a spare tire and jack?  And in the U.S., anyway, no annoying engine start/stop feature?  I’ll contemplate that minor MPG difference some Saturday night after a blowout when I’m motoring along an Alabama highway on my spare and not hitching a ride in a pickup truck with the very friendly Bodine brothers.

But the drive sealed this deal.  From the first bank vault door thunk to the post-drive walkaway glance, this car reiterates Gilligan’s Maxim: Ginger gets your attention, but Mary Ann is The One.  The A3 rides properly stately around town, manages transient response with aplomb at speeds that will scare even wannabe street racers, and it even thinks it’s a big Merc on the highway, effortlessly motoring on and on with that arrow-straight, resolute, hefty Teutonic sense of blunt predestination.  The dual-clutch tranny presents compromises compared the real versions of the manual and automatic transmissions it is supposed to combine, but adapting to this new world order isn’t that difficult.  (Hint: Puttering around town, leave it in “D”, but click over to “S” if you ever want so much as a swell of acceleration: the reluctant and violent downshift in “D” will leave you looking like a D-bag in traffic).

This is the little German non-GTI to buy nowadays, if you dare buy one.  Because somehow it goes for less than a VW CC, Buick Regal, and any number of similar smart-money-approved automotive choices, and the sum of its everything is just plain sweet.

Rest assured I will comment here if this car starts throwing sensor tantrums, emits any kind of rattle, falls completely apart, or anything in between.  No matter the price, modern car buyers are very demanding when they think they’ve bought the perfect car, see.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

It Turns Out GM Really will be Great when Pigs Fly

Anybody remember when GM’s “Mark of Excellence” was a great ad slogan?

Sure, many of the best and brightest worked and work at General Motors, but all the world knows that the “excellence” was and remains hit-and-miss at the company Capitalism built and broke. 

Maybe the culling of schlocky plasti-clad Pontiacs and old fogey Oldsmobiles, not to mention most business-as-usual, has helped calm and focus the Motown Monster lately.  Save for cleaning up more dreck from the Business as Usual Boys, GM Chair and Fall Gal Mary Barra has an awful lot of hits on her hands these days.

Witness the new Camaro Z/28.  Faster around a race track than a Porsche 911 Turbo S or Nissan GT-R Track Edition, according to the folks at Motor Trend.  A punch in the face to stratospherically-priced super cars the world-over for a mere 75k.

Except 75k is more dear than mere.  A base Corvette will be better in every way on the street, and you’ll have 20k leftover to give to your kids for bus fare.

So what sort of beast is this new 2015 Camaro Z/28?

It’s the same kind as the original: built to race on tracks for real, not just in marketing copy.  Not very practical for the street, judging by the speed-hump-catching enormity of the chin spoiler alone.  An instant collectible if you can afford to buy one and store it for a few decades.

Yet this car most represents engineering brilliance in the face of adversity, as in two tons of adversity.  This latest Camaro platform, borrowed from the Aussie Holden program, gained 600 pounds over the Gen IV Camaro, and all the thin glass and no radio in the world could shave no more than 300 pounds off the lump.

So if the new Cadillac and recent Corvette lines aren’t hint enough, this thoroughbred-out-of-the-whole-sow might drive the point home:  GM is back, and it’s world-class for real, not just in marketing copy.