Thursday, December 31, 2015

1976 Chevelle Laguna S-3 - Just Give It Time

My younger son's female friend, Anne, confided in him recently that she is despondent that a boy she loves will never love her back. He told my wife and I about this the other night and while it would have been easy to scoff at or at worst mock what she's going through, I instead was whisked back in time to that period of seemingly endless teenage/young adulthood angst. God almighty did that suck.

If I could tell her anything it's that through the passage of time, I mean a vast swath of time that no 17 or 18 year old can evenly possibly grasp at their ages, she'll come to see that not only is this boy not worth her time but she'll wonder what it was she saw in him in the first place. Hopefully. There's a couple of girls I knew before I met my wife that I feel that way about now. I have those same feelings for today's subject car, Chevrolet's Chevelle Laguna S-3. This car held such a lofty perch in my life that I named a cat after it and pined so forcibly for one that I had told my wife that if I ever came across one in half way decent condition I would buy it without consulting with her about it. All these years later I'm like, the hell did I see in this thing?

I first fell in love with one of these at the 1973 Auto Show at the old New York Coliseum in Manhattan in the fall of 1972. Swoopy, sporty looking, brand new and available in a number of what I thought were cool color combinations, the Laguna S-3 was the best looking car at the show. Even better than the Pontiac Grand Am which I was crazy over too. In the mid 1980's, a manager of mine at the hospital kitchen I worked in during college used to the throw me the keys to his 1975 Laguna S-3. The first time behind the wheel paramount to a lifelong dream come true. Sadly, I found his Laguna slow, sluggish and cartoon like given that it couldn't do anything well. I still loved it although I was a disappointed. Kind of like seeing old what's her name after a long time and not having the same feelings that you once did.

Now I look at this car, don't think I've ever seen a black Laguna before, and I really have to wonder what it was I saw in any Laguna in the first place. That goofy angled plastic nose - what is that? The rear bumper also looks like what it is - just bolted on. This one for sale was priced around $10,000 which would seem about right for any 1976 Chevelle coupe or wagon in this shape but I would pass on it if I was in the market. No doubt the body parts that make it a Laguna would be real hard to get. And I just don't think it's as good looking as I remember either. I just as soon forget about ever owning a Laguna S-3.

What is a Chevelle Laguna S-3 anyway? For starters, what's a Chevelle? Between 1964 and 1977, all mid size Chevrolets were "Chevelles". At the time, Chevrolet was so big that it was almost like it was a sub company within GM let alone a brand on the GM "ladder". Chevelle was intended to be a second division akin to what LaSalle was to Cadillac back in the 1930's. A second division with a name that is similar yet very different to the big brand? Sure. Why not. Sort of makes sense given Chevelles were really different cars than the big cars Chevrolet was selling.

There were usually three Chevelle models spread across the usual vehicle types of two and four door sedans and a wagon. A base model, an upmarket luxury model and a top drawer "sport" model that was a combination of the luxury model and a sporty motif. That sport model was the Super Sport or "SS" model; today Chevelle SS' are perhaps the most sought after and valuable of all muscle cars.

In the early 1970's, insurance company surcharges on anything they considered a performance car crushed sales of "muscle cars". Just as well. Government mandated emissions regulations were already impeding real world vehicle performance. Motor Trend said as much in their road test of a 1973 Laguna noting that the performance of the Chevrolet 350 V-8 was just "enough". Cars couldn't do what they once could but that didn't stop Chevrolet from selling a car that looked like it could.  The Laguna "S-3" replacing the Chevelle SS in the lineup; the "-3" a way of Chevrolet attempting to get one by the insurance companies. Didn't matter much, though. Muscle car sales were in the dumpster. The first gas crisis closed the lid on that dumpster.

All these years later I can't seem to stoke the coals of passion that 8 year old me had for the Chevelle Laguna S-3. Perhaps it's because the car I loved was a 1973 Laguna with a more conventional looking front end and the far more handsome slim rear bumper. I can't help but look at this car and see it for what it is; vintage mid '70's kitsch right up there with Gerald Ford, pet rocks and leisure suits.

Hang in there, Anne. It gets better. Just give it time. Trust me.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2010 Cadillac DTS - The Boca Raton Set

Cadillac has a problem - their world beating ATS and CTS models are selling slower than ice tea at the South Pole. Why? Well, there are several reasons and all of them run deeper than just the fact that Cadillac charges as much for them as BMW and Mercedes charge for their comparable models. What's even more baffling is at the same time Cadillac can't keep Escalades and SRX' in stock and many people are willing to pay "over sticker" for them. Especially for the Escalade.

The biggest problem that Cadillac faces is that despite the fact the ATS and CTS are now world beaters, many of the people who can afford these cars right now still consider Cadillacs to be frumpy, old people cars like this dreadful 2010 DTS. Mushy, bobbing, clumsy and gooey, the DTS is the essence of everything that has hurt Cadillac in the face of bristling competition over the last thirty, thirty five if not going on forty years. That "Old" image is not easy to shake nor can it be done by simply putting cars on the market as good if not better than what the competition has. This is a generational problem for Cadillac and will take another ten, twenty and dare I say thirty years to wash out.

This means that those who have the financial gravitas to drop $60,000-$80,000 and more on one car are still more apt to splurge on a BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar or even a Jaguar. Notice I didn't even mention Lincoln. Cadillac's "Retired Old Man Image" is so bad that even if they were to price the ATS and CTS more aggressively, which is a polite way of saying "less expensively", their sales would not increase exponentially. Why? Again, when it comes to the purchase of an "aspirational automobile", Cadillac is not on the list of most people who are in that rarefied market. 

Another problem that Cadillac has are the almost inexplicably strong sales for their absurd Escalade. People aren't buying a Cadillac when they buy an Escalade, they're buying an "Escalade". Cadillac sells as many of these rolling boudoirs because Escalade transcends the Cadillac brand. Same with the somewhat modest SRX; people buy it because they like the SRX  - not because it's a Cadillac.

Transcending is what is we strive for in the entertainment world but in the world of building a brand, having one or in this case two products, the Escalade and SRX, that are not core to the product line's DNA is cat amount to a brand building disaster. How ironic is that Cadillac's best selling models aren't even cars?

Can Cadillac survive? Yes. But they need to patient and diligent in sticking to their game plan of being a manufacturer of automobiles first and foremost. While Generation X'ers like my wife and I think Cadillacs are for the "Boca Raton Set", my wife guiltier of that than I am, Millennials think Cadillacs are just as great as anything with from BMW or Mercedes or Jaguar etc. And they're right; they are.

In the meantime, throw me a set of keys to a BMW 640i. What time is "T-time"?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 Ford Fusion - You Had Me At "EcoBoost"

The Wife was able to negotiate an acceptable rate on a "standard sized car" for the week of our Family Christmas trip to Florida. That upgrade gave me a choice of a new Camry, the new Chrysler 200, a VW Passat, the old body style Chevrolet Impala (that I actually prefer to the new) or this car, a 2015 Ford Fusion "Platinum" edition. Ford Fusion, you had me at "Ecoboost".

Actually, had the Camry been a V-6 model I would have jumped on that instead but it was an SE model with Toyota's wonderful but "I've been there done that" 2.5 liter, in line 4. I didn't check to see if the Chrysler 200 had the Pentastar V-6 despite it's fetching good looks, the Impala is a snoozer despite a 300+ horsepower V-6 and passing on the VW was a no brainer. Not only do I not like the look of the car, the entire situation with VW has me sick to my stomach; I couldn't even look at the Passat no matter how swell it allegedly is. Ultimately, the opportunity to spend a week with a modern "two liter turbo" was too interesting to pass on. Onward and upward as we say.
Let's cut to the chase by saying that this is a wonderful car and there's only two things that stop me short of saying it's great; I think it's ugly and the EcoBoost 4 cylinder engine is underwhelming. Sounds like I just threw the baby out with the bath water but believe me when I say this is a really, really good car. Those flaws and all.

Now, for starters, understand that I don't like sedans and I'm not going to waste a lot of time discussing the minutia of design but, that said, this car looks odd, as if it's somehow unfinished. It's also too long for as narrow as it is or seems. Might just be me but it's like something's missing. Well, it IS just me considering Ford sells a lot of Fusions. Have to wonder, though if a lot of those sales are fleet sales seeing how we were able to rent a loaded "Platinum" model. Usually, in my experience, rentals are drab strippers. Not this car - it was loaded to the grills with everything but a sunroof. 

In fairness, this car does have a nice, coupe like rakishness but that comes at the expense of headroom and MY ability to get in and out of it. I'm only five foot nine and I bonked my head repeatedly on the A pillar getting in. If you're taller than me or really tall, do yourself a favor and get in and out of this car many times during your test drive to see if you experience the same thing. I like to have the driver's seat jacked all the way so that may have led to some difficulty for me but my seating position in the Fusion was no different than the way I sit in my 2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and I have never cracked my head on the frame of the Monte. The Fusion has seat presets and the seat lowers when the ignition is off but it never lowered the seat enough to really help me. I also found myself lifting my body up and over the massive seat bolsters. The seats are great once you're in but I'd love to see how those bolsters look after a 50,000 miles of ingress and egress. Bet they look old before their time.

Once inside I found the dash to be handsome, the interior cavernous. Our car with 22,000 miles on it still had that new car smell. My family loved the USB port inside the arm rest console although we wished there was more than one. We couldn't find one for rear seat passengers; with teenage boys, USB ports are very important. On the downside the infotainment system or Ford "Sync"  made me feel like an altacocker (yiddish for old person); damn thing is not intuitive at all. Despite all the options the car had no sunroof and the cubby with cut outs on the sides under the center stack on the dash was hard to get stuff out of because it was so deep. Several items including the "smart key" kept falling out of it too. Not good. Speaking of smart keys, excuse me but what's the point of a "smart key"? Push button start? Please.

The best part of this car is that it handles remarkably well for a front wheel drive automobile and the brakes are awesome. You do feel every ounce of the car's front weight byass but Ford did a great job engineering out front wheel over steer; handling is remarkably neutral and flat. This is a fun car to drive in twisty turns. I'd love to drive an all wheel drive model of this car; handling might be even more neutral with power available to all four tires. All wheel drive would also help with this car's one serious dynamic issue - torque steer. Please note that the 2.0 liter EcoBoost is not available with all wheel drive.

"Torque steer" is where the steering wheel dances around in your hand when there's too much torque going through the car's front wheel drive half shafts for the wheels to handle smoothly. I never punched the floor off the line but you don't have to get a whole lot of torque in your hands to experience torque steer. Torque steer in this car was so bad that even slight touches of the gas when the car was at speed meant the sent the wheel jumping. This thing was real squirrelly. Maybe it was just our car seeing that rentals aren't exactly driven with great care. Especially one with as much power as this car has.

There's also the issue of being able to accelerate smoothly. It's a challenge. The "tip in", or the car's first response to the driver touching the gas pedal, is more than adequate but it's followed by a furious rush that's surprisingly not fun despite the fact that this car can really go. But it's a different kind of "go" than I'm used to compared to strong V-8 and even six cylinder engines that are not turbocharged. It's an almost mad cap, screaming, whining buzz that's made all the more off putting by the endless up and down surging tug on the steering wheel. The big V-6 that's available on the Lincoln version of the Fusion, the MKZ, probably has as much if not more torque steer but it has to be smoother than the shook up can of soda surge of the 2.0 liter EcoBoost in this car.

Finally, there's the issue of gas mileage. At approximately 19 miles per gallon, I fail to see what the point is of this "EcoBoost" engine. Ford has a whole series of four and six cylinder EcoBoost engines and if they all use gas like our rental did, I can't imagine there are too many totally satisfied EcoBoost owners out there. Maybe it's just me, again but - isn't a turbocharged engine supposed to give you the performance of a larger engine with the fuel economy of a smaller one? With this thing, you do get larger engine performance but it uses gas like a larger engine too.

At the end of our delightful Florida Christmas week trip, a week in which our teenage boys actually argued about which one of them would drive the Fusion, my family and I were left with mostly positive feelings toward the Fusion.

I had no regrets either. Great handling car, nice ride too. But if I was to go sedan again, I'd buy a Toyota Camry V-6 before I'd buy a Ford Fusion.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

1982 Buick Riviera - The Banana

My automotive banana is a 1982 Buick Riviera that was very similar to this one I found across the street from a condo my family stayed in on a Christmas week visit to South Florida.

In India, when locals want to catch  a monkey, they anchor a bottle to the ground with a neck just large enough for a monkey's hand to fit through.

My Riviera was white with red leather interior. No vinyl landau or half top. Very handsome dare I say elegant looking automobile. It was the car I was driving when I met my wife. I loved that car. She hated it. "It's an old man's car" she said over and over.

Then, they put a small banana in the bottle. 

On the drive home from the dealership where I bought it the power antenna stopped halfway up; the motor had short circuited. I waited a little more than a month to take it back to the dealership and by then they said the warranty period was up. I pulled it the rest of the way up and lived with it that way rather than spend $250 on fixing it.

Before long, a monkey comes by and seeing the banana in the bottle reaches down into the bottle and grabs it. It's then the monkey discovers that he can't get his hand of out of the bottle while holding onto the banana.

Less than a month later I hit a pothole on the Southern State and the dash lights stopped working. Somehow that jolt to the dashboard fried the "printed circuit" that controlled the car's electronics. My sympathetic mechanic, who did chastise me for not buying something new and Asian, cut me a deal and replaced it for about $400. 

He's then easily captured.

Over the next 18 months or so seemingly everything broke on that car. Cooling system, transmission, suspension, brakes. I still shudder when I think about how much that damn car cost me. And it wasn't as if I didn't spend a small fortune on purchasing it in the first place.

Thoughts arise from beliefs. If we believe life to be bad, we will expect bad things to happen. 


When the right front tire started "wagon wheeling" on the way home one day I took it straight to my mechanic who said the half shaft on that side had broken loose - there was nothing but the control arms holding the wheel to the car. Although he could have made over $1,000 on the repair, he begged me to ditch the car and buy something new. 
We are not our thoughts. We are in control of our thoughts and our destiny at all times whether we know it or not.
I took his advise. I bought a new Chevrolet Lumina which turned out to be all but bullet proof and regrettably, sold the Riviera for peanuts to a guy who couldn't believe his dumb luck at getting such a nice car so cheap. "Good luck!" I joked as he drove it away.
We create our own reality with our thoughts and beliefs.
I still miss that car.

Let go of your banana.











Wednesday, December 23, 2015

1984 Ford Mustang LX 5.0 - Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

Two gas shortages in the 1970's and government mandated emissions regulations left The Big Three scrambling to develop computerized, electronic engine control systems that could enable automobile engines to run cleaner and more efficiently. Although micro processing was hardly what it is today those engine control systems, introduced on Fords in 1978, did do what they were intended to do. However, they also impeded engine performance, drivability, were prone to failure and were expensive to repair. Worse yet, there was no legal way to bypass them. Combined with low brake horsepower, low torque and numerically high drive ratios, despite lower curb weights, the early 1980's were the nadir of poor performance in American automobiles and it seemed as though merely adequate automobile performance was a thing of the past.

Therefore, it was nothing short of remarkable when Ford offered a "performance" V-8 engine in their Mustang GT in 1982. Thanks to the rapid development of Ford's Electronic Engine Control Systems or "EEC", the Boss was back" even if at full boil that V-8 made only 157 horsepower. Didn't matter to a horsepower starved America; it had more power than any other engine Ford offered at the time and it provided performance that was all but impossible just five years prior given the state of primitive, mechanical emission control systems. What's more, that engine had an old fashioned carburetor and not, what was becoming increasingly commonplace at the time, fuel injection.

If there was any problem with the Holley equipped V-8 1982 Mustang GT, it was that if you wanted the go fast V-8 you could only get it with a manual transmission.  If you wanted an automatic with your GT in 1982, Ford offered their de-bored 120 horsepower, carbureted, 255 cubic inch V-8. For 1983, the 255 was discontinued so for '83, no V-8 engine was offered on any Mustang that did not have a manual transmission.

That changed in 1984 when Ford began offering a "High Output" V-8 Mustang with an automatic transmission. However, it was not the same engine they offered in Mustangs (and Mercury Capri's for that matter) with manuals. It was, instead, a "High Output" version of the fuel injected engine they sold in all other rear wheel drive automobiles that had either a V-8 option or as standard equipment.

While it was slightly less powerful than the carburetor equipped V-8 engines in the manual transmission cars, those of us who prefer automatics to manuals finally had a High Output V-8 Mustang.

Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too?

By 1986 all Ford Mustangs featured fuel injection.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Bye, Bye Cable TV - Take Back Control

I just reduced my family's monthly cable TV expense from a nose bleed inducing $207 per month to a "are you for real?" $35 a month. How?

I switched from cable TV to "over the air" TV. I held onto our cable provider for internet access and dropped our home phone but as far as regular TV goes, that's now free. And the picture is HD and spectacular. While our channel selection is a fraction of what it used to be, did we really need three different versions of ESPNU?, we do not miss any of it and for any "premium experience" we use Amazon Fire to access Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. While the Netflix and other subscriptions amount to approximately $30 a month, we're going to drop one of them, technically our bill for "TV" is $65 a month but what we cut each month to the cable company is now just $35 a month instead of $207.

Now, before I went "off the grid", I spoke to my cable provider about reducing our bill. Just like that, they offered a whopping $25 a month discount for one year. After a year they'd jack it back up again. Lovely.

Next I asked about them taking us off their "Signature Plus" plan - that dropped our bill to $152 a month. Still not enough. When I asked what their least expensive plan was they offered me something called "Limited Basic". With "Limited Basic", internet, and no home phone our bill would drop to $55 a month. While I understood that "Limited Basic" would give me just local TV stations and I'd lose my precious DVR's, frankly, they're one of the few things that are worth the money, I made an appointment for a service tech to come to my house and remove everything. It also meant no fancy , all in one remote controls too. Speaking of cable controllers, who remembers tripping over the cable for these old Jerrold boxes?

First pothole we hit was that "Limited Basic" isn't HD - the picture was flat and lifeless, as if something wasn't quite right. I felt like we were back in the 1960's. The only way to get HD would be to go with their "Basic" plan which needs another special converter and would push our bill up to about $110 a month. But of course. In fairness, "Basic" comes with a fair amount of channels - it's not bare bones like "Limited Basic" is. Now, while $110 a month is almost half of what we were paying, when the cable company offered me a plan for just $55 a month I want a plan for $55 a month. Or less.

The only other option was to go "OTA" or "over the air". Sounds oddly complicated and primitive at the same time but it's very straight forward. The first thing I did was buy an antenna like this from Best Buy for about $110. Steep, yes, but it's a one time expense I figured. I assembled it and attached it to our bed room TV, changed the TV's input to "ANT" for antenna and rescanned the channels. Boom. Money. Everything worked. I got all of our local Cleveland stations and best of all, they were HD. Score.

I hit a second pothole when I hooked up all of my TV's to the antenna through the cable box on my deck. Some of the TV's worked but only got maybe half the local stations while others wouldn't work at all. A powered, coax splitter did nothing to help the signal. By the way, it's a good idea to do schematics of your house when you tackle projects like this.

Long story short, the problem was that while my TV in my bedroom, which is on the second story of my house, worked fine with that antenna, when I put the antenna down on my deck the lack of height down there made it difficult for the antenna to pick up signals. I then put the antenna back in our bedroom and ran a long coax cable out my bedroom window down to the cable box and voila, success. Note - with digital TV antennas height is key. If you have a one story house, you're going to need to find a way to get enough height. Perhaps an antenna like this is in store for you.

Finally, to make this deal even sweeter, I made this TV antenna for just $6 so I can return the $100 store bought antenna. Yes, those are coat hangers. I know, crazy but it works better than the store bought antenna. Kid you not. Total cost of the project that included 125 feet of coax cable and a digital converter for an older set we use that does not have a digital tuner - around $75. And that's a one time expense. Sure beats almost $2,500 a year for cable.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Saturn Aura - Too Little Too Late.

This is not the typical type of car I like to write about but I've done so to illustrate a point or two. 

Years ago, I found out that my boss, let's call him "Bob", was about to lose his job several days before he was actually fired. In the days leading up to his dismissal, Bob worked harder than I had ever seen him work before and honestly, had he worked as hard as he did that last week or so I have to think that he probably would have kept his job. He was also pleasant to deal with too; he wasn't the mean, lazy snake that everyone despised. He was so great to work with that I almost felt bad for him for what was about to happen to him. Almost. Even on the morning he was let go he was working like a mad man when he got the call that the big boss needed to see him. Pow. We met for lunch a week or so later and I asked him if he knew that he was in trouble and he said he knew things weren't exactly rosey but he didn't think he'd lose his job. He didn't see it coming. Seeing the situation somewhat from afar I found what he said hard to believe.

Long before General Motor's Saturn division introduced this car to replace their L-series sedan for the 2006 model year, they were in trouble. Big trouble. When Saturn was dissolved after the 2009 reorganization, I would find it hard to believe that those in charge didn't see it coming but you know that there are those who didn't. I feel especially bad for the factory workers who were doing a great job assembling this neat little car.

Introduced in 1991, throughout the 1990's, Saturn had carved out an off beat niche and had cultivated a loyal customer base akin to what Volvo and Saab once had. The Saturn charm was their marketing of a pleasant, no hassle buying experience above and beyond anything else. Everything else was same old Roger Smith era, 1980's GM. The plastic bodied Saturn SL was crap.

As sales plunged, subsequent attempts to offset sagging sales, the "L-Series" and "Ion" for instance, failed to find a substantial enough customer base to keep the division solvent. Then, when GM was rebadging the terrific Opel Vectra for use as a Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac G6, they repurposed it for Saturn as well. Saturn, which billed it'self as a different kind of car company, was all of a sudden just like everything else GM was pushing out. And of you didn't know any better, you thought that Saturn's efforts as their ship was sinking were about to pay off since this was (or is) a really good car.

Too little, too late. Just like "Bob".

Saturday, December 12, 2015

1974 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Town Sedan - Grand Dad's Oldsmobile

Funny how the simplest of styling touches can make or break a car. General Motors offered their four door sedans in two different styles back in the 1970's; not sure why but they did. The better looking of the two was something they called a "hard top" that featured only "A" and "C" pillars giving a nice, clean, dare I say "sporty" look to the profile of the cars. Like on the Buick Electra we just looked at and this Delta 88 featured in a brochure for 1974 Oldsmobiles. Note the unseat belted kid. Hysterical. By the way, the "A pillar" is the front pillar that holds up the windshield while the "C pillar" is the large pillar or post holding up the back of the roof. Some people refer to the "C pillar" as the sail panel.

The term "hard top" was derived from cars that looked as though they were convertibles but had fixed roofs instead. The term is more apropos on two door cars than four door cars in my opinion but GM's 1971-1976 four door hard tops were some handsome automobiles. On the other hand there were the formal sedans that had a "B pillar" between the front and rear doors like this 1974 Oldsmobile Delta 88 "Town Sedan".

It's a subtle nuance but it makes a big difference. I have to imagine that if this poor old thing was a hard top it would sell much quicker and for perhaps more money. If you're wondering, it's for sale for just $2995 about 45 minutes south of down town Cleveland, Ohio. Price is fair for a forty one year old car in what appears to be mint condition. Just has to find a buyer. That's going to be tough.

My dad had a 1972 Cadillac DeVille hardtop that was absolutely a blast to drive with all the windows down. With no "B pillar", the wind would whisk through the car making it feel as though you were on a speed boat. You felt the wind all around you but it didn't bother you. Much. I loved that. With that big fat "B pillar" right there, with the windows down the wind gets buffeted and pounds passengers. Not fun.
The story behind these low mileage old cars in great shape is usually the same - grand dad's last brand new car he hardly used before something happened to him. Nice meaning family members storing the car for years either for sentimental reasons or a misguided belief that it would be worth something some day. Why couldn't Grand Dad had splurged on at least a coupe?