Tuesday, January 31, 2017

1996 Chevrolet Camaro - My Boys' Car

Last fall up here in Cleveland, what some would call "Indian Summer" ran right into the middle of November. It was one particularly warm, sunny morning that I took the 1996 Camaro my wife and I bought as an extra car for our teenage boys to use to the office instead of my Monte Carlo. I had the Monte off line as it was suffering through one of its biannual maladies and since the Camaro hadn't been used much since the end of August, what with the boys away at college, it could have used a good spin.

Remember the old saying about no good deed goes unpunished? Well, with the weather as nice as it was, I didn't need to have the heat on in the car. Had it been a chilly day, I would have had the heat on and I probably would have noticed before it was too late that there was no heat. The lower radiator hose had come off its fitting and all the coolant drained out the engine. Why'd this happen? Dammed if I or a half dozen mechanics I've consulted could tell me but no coolant meant no cooling and no tell tale heat. The engine over heated and blew out the head gaskets.

Ironic that the very type of thing that I worried about happening to our boys when they used the car would happen to me when I used it. And had it happened to them, as freakish as it was, I would've have been understanding and consoling whereas since it occurred to me on my watch, I was left feeling foolish and irresponsible. What's more, I was heartbroken.

While I was no less than mortified over a $2,700 repair estimate, and trust me, I've done enough research to determine that it's not something I'd want to handle myself, my heartache was not so much about the car and the expense to repair it but about what the car, selfishly, means to me. I miss our boys terribly but seeing "their Camaro" in the driveway, much like standing in their cluttered bedrooms they've left behind, is a reminder that they will be coming home from school soon. Albeit for a short while. I'm not ready to let them grow up and be adults just yet let alone get rid of a tangible link to when they were younger; the very thought of getting rid of "their car" made me sick to my stomach. Heck, with them away at school I can't even go into their bedrooms without first girding myself emotionally.

Since we didn't need the car for a while, I had time to not only "get over" the Camaro but figure out a best possible plan of action. That boiled down to, essentially, two things. Either fix what we have or start over with, as my wife has pointed out repeatedly, something more practical. She does have a point since a rear wheel drive, twenty year old Camaro in a snow city is not the best idea in the world. However, the expression on their faces when we first got it makes any inconvenience worthwhile.

Resigned to replacing it, I didn't feel spending the money to fix it worth it since the car is very rusty underneath, I set a budget slightly north of what it would have cost to do the repairs and searched for anything that looked decent. The process was arduous. Used car shopping a big enough pain when you have a decent budget to work with but when you've strapped yourself with next to nothing, it can be torture. There's a lot of junk out there and I don't miss the characters I met on Craigslist either. During my search, of course, I also looked at every 1993-2002 Chevrolet Camaro for sale between Toledo, Dayton, Columbus and Athens, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pickin's, as they say, were slim.

However, one day I came across the literal clone of what we had not thirty minutes to the south of us. With just 68,000 miles on its odometer and having originally been an "Arizona car" I couldn't get my checkbook out fast enough after I had it checked for purchase by a mechanic. The mechanic seeing the car was clean as it was told me if I didn't buy it, he would. While buying the "new" Camaro cost us about $500 more than what it would have cost us to repair the "old" one, from a glass is half full perspective, we've actually come out ahead seeing that this car has 30,000 less miles on it that our "old Camaro". It also has not a spec of rust. Something I can't say about our "old" Camaro.

I'm no fatalist but I'm nothing if not diligent; the harder you work the luckier you get. I'd would like to believe, though, that it was more than just sheer coincidence that I've been able to replace what we had with virtually the same thing. Fate or some higher power telling me that it's alright to miss our boys who are growing up way, way too fast. That higher power telling me that it's ok to hold onto whatever it is that you reminds me of them. If that makes me feel better about their growing up then so be it. Yes, it is just a car...but it's my boys' car. 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mercedes Benz CLA 250 - The Make Believe Benz

If I believed that the Mercedes Benz 190 from the 1980's was a pseudo Benz, imagine how I feel about this thing that makes the 190 of yore look like a gull wing SL.

Mercedes Benz has always had lower priced models but everything is relative; a "cheap" Mercedes not unlike buying the least expensive house in a very nice neighborhood. Mercedes Benz pricing strata all but ensuring that their brand is exclusive but what then were we to make of the 2014-2016 CLA 250 with a sticker price about the same as a mid level Chevrolet Impala?

The best I can make of the CLA is it would be akin to ordering a cheeseburger at a high end steak house. And get this, when you start throwing in the pricey side dishes, sorry, options, the CLA was no bargain with out the door pricing pushing fifty grand. What did they make this cheeseburger out of? Left over Fillet Mignon? Judging by the number of CLA's I see around Cleveland, there are a lot of people who buy the "chopped steak" at Morton's. In more pretentious, image conscious cites like Dallas, Nashville or Los Angeles, I'm sure mall parking lots look like the storage lots for Mercedes Benz dealerships dealerships over stocked with these things.

I don't think I'd have half the issue with the CLA that I do if I thought it at least looked the part like the old 190 did. My iPhone's flattering camera doesn't do this car any justice. This damn thing hit every branch on the ugly tree and then did a face plant into the sidewalk.

This is a Mercedes? C'mon, man. This don't look like no Mercedes. You put a Chevy bow tie on this thing and people would think it's the new Malibu. Yuck. The diminutive 190? Again, at least it looked like a Mercedes.

And, wouldn't you know it? My wife is quite fond of this car. This one in particular since we both see it quite often in the parking garage of the hoity toity gym we both now go to on Cleveland's west side. You know the one with the carpeted locker rooms, movie theater and juice bar? It's actually quite nice. Expensive but nice.

I wonder if she's smitten with the design of this car or the three pointed star on the grille and trunk lid. My wife is not one to be drawn to labels but she does have an eye for the finer things in life. I don't see what she sees in this car. I scoff at it saying that it's not a "real Mercedes". It's a "make believe Benz" for people who can't afford one.

To their credit, Mercedes has rebooted the CLA 250 for 2017 and it looks far more like a "real Mercedes". This thing? Makes me want to scour Craigslist looking for an old 190.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Chevrolet Sonic LTZ - Sometimes I Don't Even Know Who I Am

I've stumbled across this handsome little roller skate in the parking lot of my office before and it's always made me do a double take. A Chevrolet Sonic? Really? Really. 

Perhaps it's me pining for that Toyota Corolla FX that I should have bought that didn't years ago that draws me to rakish little cars like this. Back in the day I was a card carrying member of the "Bigger is Better" club and anything small like that Corolla would have been admission that I was comfortable with my short comings as a man. Heaven forbid. As much as I loved that Buick Riviera that I bought instead of that Corolla, well, at least until it started braking down on me, a 23 year old driving a land yacht like that? C'mon. Who was I trying to impress or trying to be?

Introduced in 2010 to replace the sad, Daewoo sourced Aveo, the Chevrolet Sonic was an out of the park homeroom for General Motors and Chevrolet. Never before had Chevrolet or General Motors for that matter, built a small car from the ground up that could go tire to tire with the best small cars from Europe and Asia. Not only going tire to tire but besting them at their own game too. The Sonic uses GM's global "Gamma II" platform so the Sonic is actually its North American badge as opposed to being a "Chevrolet". 

This stylish and by all accounts comfortable, spirited little car was like a small Phoenix rising from the ashes of GM's bankruptcy. There's been a number of impressive new vehicle introductions post Chapter 11 for GM, were all of these wonderful automobiles stymied by the old General Motors? On the small car front, GM had how many small car failures over the previous forty plus years? Corvair, Vega, Chevette, Citation; the list goes on and on. After the walls came crashing down for GM, this car and many others rolled out of their factories. That's telling.

So, 52 year old me can see himself driving something like this? A stylish, zippy little commuter to zig-zag my way to work in? Well, honestly, no. I can't really say that I'd ever drive something like this as daily driver because I do, and this pains me to say, enjoy the sprawling interior, comfort and isolation of a larger automobile. The front seats of my 2002 Monte Carlo and especially my 2006 Tahoe are thrones compared to the supportive but diminutive buckets of a small car like our Sonic here. Smaller cars also tend to be noisier as well and, I guess I'm fairly claustrophic, I like my elbow room. A small car doesn't mean it's a bad car, like years ago, it's just that they're probably best suited for someone else.

Doesn't mean I can't look at these cars and not admire them. Gee whiz, what am I going to fall for next? A Prius? Sometimes I don't even know who I am anymore.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Cars of La La Land - Sebastian's 1982 Buick Riviera

This past Saturday night on our way to the theater to see the fabulous "La La Land", my wife and I were, for some reason, discussing the 1982 Buick Riviera I was driving when we first met. With that discussion came her good natured needling that I've grown accustomed to over a quarter century of marriage about 23 year old me driving an "Old Man's Car". Little did we know, though, that in "La La Land" that Ryan Gossling's character, "Sebastian" drives a 1982 Buick Riviera. Just like THAT my "Old Man's Car" became the coolest car since Steve McQueen's 1968 Ford Mustang GT in "Bullitt". A wink at my wife and a smile was all the gloating I needed to get my point across to her. Vindication is delicious.

In a motion picture, "car casting" is as important a set design element as hair and wardrobe. Seb's Riviera in "La La Land", much like the 1959 Cadillac that Robert DeNiro's "Michael" drives in "The Deer Hunter", is more than just a car; it's a metaphor that enables the audience to understand who a character is and a sublimely foreshadows what the film is ultimately all about.

General Motors recevied much praise for their new for 1979 "E body" Buick Riviera. Motor Trend going so far as to award Buick their "Golden Calipers" denoting their highly sought after, "Car of the Year" honors for the Riviera. Encompassing the spirit of Bill Mitchell's magnificent 1963 Riviera, the 1979 Buick Riviera foretold of a design future for General Motors filled with moxy and elan if not hubris. That future, sadly, like Seb and Mia's future, crashed and burned.

In "La La Land", Seb is a tough person to get to know unlike the people pleaser Mia is. Mia, an actress, is always wearing her heart on her sleeve and is transparent; Emma Stone is so wonderful as Mia that you can't imagine that Mia isn't some extension of who Ms. Stone is. Mia drives a Toyota Prius, like most of Hollywood, apparently, and doing so paints her as smart, demure, respectful, practical if not predictable. Seb, a struggling jazz pianist, is moody, dark, foreboding, distant, aloof seemingly by nature and arrogant. His music is equally such and although his talent "on the keys" considerable, it doesn't give us much of a glimpse behind the curtain into who Seb is to allow the audience to look past his shortcomings. After all, talent and whom a person is are mutually exclusive. The Buick Riviera he drives helps connect the dots about who the director of the film wants us to believe Seb is.

What's more, the differences between a 35 year old Buick and a modern Prius more than subtlety underscores the vast differences between Seb and Mia. Somehow, these two self absorbed dreamers worked  as  a couple. That is, until their dreams get in the way of "them". Sorry. Should have given you a spoiler alert there. Although, something tells me that if you're reading this you've already seen the movie.

I will always love my 1982 Buick Riviera but I honestly believe that I love the idea of the car and that time in my life when my wife and I first met more than the actual car itself. That damn thing broke down constantly, it was the worst car I ever had, and I can not fathom for more than a minute looking for another one. Seriously, that was a bad car. Still, again much like Seb and Mia pondering what their lives would have been like together "for the long haul" at the end of "La La Land", me getting another Riviera is quite wonderful to think about.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

2004 Pontiac Grand Prix - The Last Grand Prix

Why am I writing about a 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix? Well, because some cars deserve better than to languish in the discount lot of a used car lot on Cleveland's west side and not get any love.

During my search for a replacement for our beloved Red Camaro I came upon this gem. I say that with half my tongue pressed into my cheek. While I wasn't crazy about the styling job GM did on their 2004 update of the GP, and the color of this one in particular makes me sad, I was always impressed with the '04-'08 Grand Prix' handling prowess, brakes, comfort and even in non supercharged form, its power. Could it out handle a BMW 3 or 5 series? No, of course not. Then again, it was never intended to do so.

What it was intended to do was provide more than ample performance, comfort, and safety at a mass market cost point. As a used car, you could do far worse than this car or any GM W-body for that matter especially late in the platform's life. Yes, despite what you may have heard, the GM W-body was quite the stout, robust automobile. Damn near bullet proof too. Now, accuse me of being a homer, I've had five W's since 1990, and love being blind and taste and opinions being like you know what, but if you're in the market for a solid used car, click Pontiac Grand Prix on cars.com or craigslist and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

It's ironic that at the end of the Grand Prix' product cycle, the 2004 reboot was the last Grand Prix, that it was only offered as a four door sedan. As part of the much maligned GM "W" series, which was dubbed "GM-10" when it debuted in 1988 the Grand Prix was initially offered as only a two door. Coupe lover me, of course, had no issue with that and was flummoxed that critics took issue with GM for doing such. Damn critics. What do they know? 

The gist of the criticism was that GM spent billions on the GM-10's development and it was for only for said two door coupes. Speculation was that GM was still making money on their A body sedans (Pontiac 6000, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, Chevrolet Celebrity, Buick Century) and a sedan on the new GM-10 platform would have eaten into their sales. Interesting. A GM-10 sedan didn't appear until after GM began putting the A body out to pasture starting in 1990. 

Automobile product planning is probably a more complicated and dicier affair than I would ever imagine it to be. If I've learned anything in life it's that few things are what they appear to be. Best to bite your tongue and understand what's going on top to bottom before voicing your opinion. 

Who knows what happened to our low mileage Grand Prix here. I was drawn to it knowing that for $5,000 it was a great value and with only 54,000 "Grand Ma" miles on it it was probably maturely driven. All that despite the color. Beggars can't be choosers. 

Upon inspection I found the car to be quite well worn. Various dings and scratches, some actually starting to rust and this major "owie" had me fairly crestfallen. These mirrors are meant to breakaway. If they didn't, when people would knock them off they'd do thousands of dollars of damage to the door and the A-pillars. This repair would probably run about forty bucks plus another hundred or so to paint it. Maybe you'd get lucky and find one ebay or in a junk yard that was the same color. 

I passed on this car after the test drive revealed a series of semi melodic clanks and bangs. A loose exhaust here, a worn out strut there. Who knows what else. I was surprised that it had as much wrong with as it did being on a dealer lot but it was in the back of the lot in the discount section. The dealership was inflexible on the price which was just as well. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Infiniti G37 Convertible - Living Vicariously

The sun in your face, the wind in your hair, no unobstructed views as breath taking vistas zip by. What's not to like about the idea of a convertible? What's more, with the top down everyone looks great in a convertible and, bonus!, who doesn't like to be looked at enviously by strangers?

Well, perhaps being ogled by strangers isn't for everyone but aside from a (precious) few benefits, I'm sure there are at least a couple more, I, for one, am of the belief that convertibles are just not worth the hassle. Even one as wonderful as our 2009-2013 Infiniti G37 convertible. I'll live vicariously through you and yours and make you feel like a rock star for having one but convertibles are not for me.

My issues with convertibles are, no pun intended, two fold. First, the hassle. In no particular order, they have little if any trunk space when the top is down; they're more expensive to insure not to mention more expensive to buy; they have a higher risk of roof leakage in bad weather; you can get a sun burn while driving one with the top down; they're noisier inside than fixed roof cars (that's with the top up); when the top is up they have inherently less head room than fix roofed cars; their structure can be shaky and last but certainly not least, birds can and will poop on you. Sounds funny, right? Well, I'm not kidding. It happens all the time.

So, aside from all that, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you like your Infiniti G37 convertible?

Secondly, I don't think canvas roof convertibles are as good looking as their fixed roof counter parts. Hard top convertibles like our Ininiti G37 are a different story and we'll get to that in a second. For example, look at this 2016 Chevrolet Camaro convertible. You really think the lines of the canvas top do anything for this car?

Top down is a different story but heads up, potential convertible buyers, most of your time spent with a convertible will be with the top up. Side note, the sides of this car are way too high; the driver looks like he's driving a bath tub. LOL.

I ran into our glorious hard top convertible G37 in the parking lot of the hotel my family and I were staying at in West Palm during this past Christmas break. It knocked me sideways. Despite the alta cocker innuendo that such a car makes in South Florida, if ever there was a convertible I could see myself in it would be one of these. Make mine a G37S in black. Red leather.

Different from soft top convertibles with their clumsy profile ruining canvas "roof", our G here is a "hard top" convertible meaning that when the top is up, only the keenest of eyes would be able to tell that the car was actually a convertible.

Through a series of dazzlingly complicated motors and scissor mechanisms, the top of this car folds magically into a clam shell of sorts and then disappears into the trunk. You have to see one operate to believe it; it's incredible  and it all happens in about thirty seconds. Going down and up. Great stuff but all the whizzing and whirring sounds very expensive to repair if, heaven forbid, something goes wrong. And you know when that happens that this sucker will stop working when it's half up (or down) in a rain storm.

While the advantages of a hard top or clam shell convertible over a canvas top are numerous, what I like best about them is their silhouette with their top up compared to their fixed roof counter parts. Because they lack a  fixed center pillar, what is referred to as a "B" pillar, behind the doors and a slightly more convex or "bubble top" allowing for as much head room as possible in a car with a folding top. I love the look of a hard top convertibles with the top up. I could care less if the top ever comes down to be honest with you.

Hard top coupes and sedans, cars that looked like convertibles but actually were not drop tops, were all the rage after World War II. Sadly, hard tops went the way of dodo in the mid 1970's amid concerns over safety and crash worthiness.

Seriously, I'd get this car just because of the lack of a "B" pillar and the subtle bubble top and never drive it with the top down. It's that gorgeous. Besides, who needs the worry of whether or not the top is going to seize mid flight anyway. And don't forget about the bird poop.

Alta cocker is a Yiddish expression that translates loosely to mean "Old Shit",

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

2017 Kia Forte 5 - Opposites Attract

This Kia Forte 5 reminds of the Toyota Corolla FX that I rented years ago after I wrecked my Chrysler Cordoba on Sunrise Highway in Bayshore back on Long Island. I loved that zippy but homely car and I even grew kind of fond of it's staid, utilitarian looks after awhile.

Now, let's make no bones about it,  the Kia Forte is an entry level economy car. As such, here in the mid twenty teens, said economy car is a far car from the crank window, air conditioner less strippers my rental Corolla was, OMG, thirty years ago. Today, economy cars like the Forte come very well equipped with literally everything power that defined what a luxury car was years ago. And more. Kia knows who their buyers are too and packs their wares with an infotainment system to rival upmarket makes and models.

While the base Forte four door sedan and coupe are nothing to look at, the additional canvas of sheet metal that comes with a fifth door out back transforms an otherwise forgettable design into a really good looking automobile. However, those good looks come literally at a price; the "5 GDI", like our subject, is the most expensive of all the Fortes and fully loaded pushes the Forte into the heady world of the Mazda 3, Ford Focus STi and the modern version of the great Rabbit GTI, the Volkswagen Golf.

In a locker room with those blue chip prospects, the Forte 5 is an All-State high school quarterback who doesn't quite have the beans to compete at the next level. So, how and why do people buy Forte 5's when there are better alternatives out there for very similar money?

Well, good looks for one. Taste being like arm pits, hey, even muscle car lover me was drawn to the lines on this thing, you can never discount what someone is going to find attractive in another person let alone an automobile. After all, opposites attract.

What I would like to know is how much cross shopping [of vehicles] people do. My guess, not much despite the myriad of resources that are out there these days for people to use without even stepping into the dungeon that is a new car showroom. A coworker of mine recently replaced his 2006 Kia Spectra with a Forte sedan and while he's a Kia loyalist of sorts, he didn't even think of looking at similar automobiles from even Hyundai not to mention Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet et al. Would he be happier with something else? Probably. But I don't have the heart to tell him that.  This is not is not to say that all Kia buyers are the same way but I wonder what percentage of their buyers are one stop shoppers?

I like the Forte 5 so much that it inspired me to look at something like it in addition to the throbbing Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers that I will look at first next time next time I car shop. However, there are better cars out there than the Forte 5 for the money. Do yourself and your bank account a favor and do your research.

Thank you, Kia Forte 5 for inspiring me towards, if anything, a Golf GTI.