Friday, December 14, 2012

2010 Honda Accord EX sedan vs. 2002 Volkswagen Passat GLX wagon

As some of you know, due to the fact that my 2010 Accord is not as good at transporting a keyboard and/or a drum set as I'd like, and due to the fact that I transport said objects fairly regularly, I had been searching for a cheap, second, used vehicle of the wagon variety for a month or so.  This search concluded a couple weeks ago when I purchased a 2002 Volkswagen Passat GLX wagon with 131,500 miles on the odometer.  It's dark gray/blue on the outside with a gray leather interior and, of course, it's a five-speed.  Now that I've driven it a bit, I figure it's time for a side-by-side comparison of my two vehicles.  Before we begin, though, here are the hard facts:

2010 Accord EX Sedan Specs             2002 Passat GLX Wagon Specs

Engine:  2.4L I-4, 190 hp                     2.8L V-6, 190 hp
Transmission:  5-speed manual            5-speed manual
Mileage:  75,000                                  132,000
Current Approx. Value:  $11,000        $7,000

Now for the comparison:

Power/Acceleration:  Both cars make 190 hp.  However, the cars' power delivery couldn't be more different.  The Accord's engine uses Honda's VTEC (electronically controlled valve timing) system and, in true Honda fashion, makes more power the closer it gets to its redline.  In other words, there isn't a whole lot down low, but it rips once you get past 4K or 5K RPM, especially in the lower gears.  On the other hand, the Passat uses a V6 and, while it doesn't rip to the redline like the Accord's four-banger does, it has a much meatier midrange and puts down a good deal more torque (due to the fact that it's a V6).  While outright acceleration isn't as different as one might think, the Passat's more usable midrange power gives it the win in this category.  Advantage:  Passat.

Fuel Economy:  The Accord gets nearly 30 mpg on 87-octane.  The Passat gets approximately 24 on 91-octane.  Advantage:  Accord by a landslide.

Transmission and Clutch:  While the VW has a short, stubby, slick shift knob made of genuine wood, there's a reason that the critics rave about Honda's manual transmissions and clutches.  There's no comparison.  The Honda's clutch is feather-light compared to the VW and is telepathically easy to read. Its shifter is slick, direct, and surgically precise.  The VW's transmission and clutch aren't bad, but they aren't nearly as good as the Honda's.  Advantage:  Accord.

Ride:  Both cars ride firmly but compliantly.  However, the VW does a slightly better job soaking up the bumps.  Advantage:  Passat.

Steering/Handling:  Again, both cars steer (pardon the pun) toward the sporty side of the midsize car continuum.  Here, though, the Accord wins due to its perfectly weighted hydraulic assist steering and its low profile 17-inch tires.  In other words, it drives more athletically than anything its size has a right to.  Advantage:  Accord.

Quietness:  The VW's wagon body style generates a bit more wind noise than the Accord's sedan body.  However, it is superior at squelching engine and tire noise, as well as noise from other vehicles.  Advantage:  Passat.

Ergonomics:  I thought the Accord would win this category by a landslide, but this one's too close to call.  The VW's audio controls win, but the Accord's other controls are better laid out.  This one's a tie.  

Interior Fit, Finish, and Ambience:  Honda builds quality products, and my Accord is no exception.  The interior materials and assembly quality are good.  That said, there are some glaring oversights.  No $24K new car should have hard plastic door panels where the arm touches.  Its cause also isn't helped by the fact that the Passat GLX's interior would look at home in an Audi A4.  Nice leather, real wood trim, lots of soft-touch surfaces, etc. will do that.  That, and while the Accord's gauges use cool-looking LEDs for illumination, the Passat's blue gauge and display back-lighting is epic!  Advantage:  Passat.

Features and Amenities:  The Accord is well-equipped.  The Passat is loaded.  As in rain-sensing wipers, memory driver's seat and mirrors, auto tilt passenger side mirror when reverse is selected, universal garage door opener, heated leather seats, trip computer, automatic climate control, power operation for BOTH front seats, power folding side mirrors, premium sound, etc.  Advantage:  Passat.

Cold-Weather Friendliness:  The Accord heats up a little more quickly and has a better defroster, but it doesn't have the Passat's heated seats, heated washer-fluid nozzles, or exterior temperature gauge that dings when the temperature dips below 40 degrees.  Functionality vs. features.  Advantage:  Both.  

Sound System:  The Accord lacks the Passat's tape deck but comes with a six-CD changer in the dash vs. the Passat's single-disc player, as well as an auxiliary input jack.  Both cars have steering wheel-mounted audio controls, but only the Accord lets the driver switch audio sources on the wheel.  The Accord's also has two front power ports vs. one in the Passat, and those in the Accord shut off when the ignition is turned off (useful for not draining the battery).  That said, the eight-speaker Monsoon stereo in the Passat simply spanks the six-speaker Honda unit in the Accord as far as sound quality goes.  Advantage:  Passat.

Driver Comfort:  The Passat has leather upholstery, memory for the driver's seat, and heated front seats, as well as an auto-dimming rearview mirror (something that is incredibly useful).  Its visibility is also superior due to the wagon body style.  The Accord's front seats are firmer, more supportive, and generally better shaped, and the Honda's clutch is much more user-friendly.  Advantage:  Both.

Rear Comfort:  The Passat has leather upholstery and an individual reading light for each outboard passenger.  The seat itself is very supportive, and the Passat's center rear seat is much more comfortable than that in the Accord.  However, the Accord has rear A/C vents, as well as a more spacious bench in general (wider for three-across travel).  Advantage:  Both.

Cargo Utility:  The Accord is a sedan with a one-piece folding seatback and a small ski pass through.  The Passat has a 60/40 split-folding rear seat and it folds flat.  It's also a boxy wagon.  Even though small-items storage is vastly inferior to the Accord up in the first row, the Passat's wagon versatility wins out here, and it's why I bought it in the first place.  Advantage:  Passat by a landslide.  

So, which is the better car?  On paper, the Passat is.  It won more categories, and it is several vehicles at once.  It's a luxury car, a highway cruiser, and a brilliant cargo hauler at the same time.  However, there's a simplicity to the Accord that is refreshing at times.  There are fewer electronics that can go wrong, it burns regular gas (as opposed to the 91-octane juice that the VW demands), it burns LESS gas than the VW, it's easier to drive smoothly, and it drives more athletically.  Advantage:  Both.  Both are truly excellent cars that are good at different things and don't truly fail at much of anything.  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fall 2012 Albany Auto Show

Yesterday, I hit up the Fall 2012 Albany Auto Show at the Empire State Plaza.  My observations:

 Am I getting taller, or are more and more mid-size and full-size family sedans losing rear headroom?  I could not comfortably fit in the back of the Hyundai Sonata or the Nissan Altima, and could only barely fit in the back of the new Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry.  Even the Honda Accord seems to have lost some headroom in its latest redesign, though it was at least passable.  As for the center-rear seat on any of these vehicles, forget about it!  Not a chance!  Do these manufacturers seem to think that six-footers don’t exist anymore?  It’s a shame, because the seats themselves were pretty good in all of these sedans, and legroom wasn’t an issue in any of them.  The fact that I felt like I had more headroom in the back of a Scion TC than most of the aforementioned sedans just doesn’t make sense.  

 Nissan’s display was pretty impressive.  The new Altima is pretty decent, while the redesigned Sentra has shot up enormously in interior packaging and quality.  The back seat in that car is HUGE and was perhaps more comfortable than that in its big brother Altima.  The interior was also significantly more upscale than that of the Sentra I rented this summer while in Indiana.  It had probably the cushiest door armrests I’ve ever experienced.  They also had a Frontier pickup with a six-speed stick.  Surprisingly nice truck!  I’d probably buy one if I was in the market for a pickup.  

 The Dodge Dart, while quite a nice car overall, had ABYSMAL rear seat headroom. 
The Honda Insight absolutely stunk.  Sure, it gets good gas mileage and has a low sticker price for a hybrid, but it’s otherwise pretty terrible.  It just felt cheap in so many ways; it’s like Honda took a page from the American penalty boxes of the mid 90s.  

 The Honda Crosstour’s cloth front seats were awesome (better even than the ones in my Accord, which is odd given that they’re virtually the same car).  However, why would the wagon version of a car have less rear headroom than the sedan version?!

 The Toyota Avalon and Cadillac XTS were both very nice, but not quite as opulent as I’d expect given their missions as the figurative AARP modes of transport.  That, and I unintentionally locked myself in the back seat of the Avalon (the childproof door locks were engaged).  

 The Toyota Camry was pretty unimpressive.  

 The new Ford Fusion was pretty decent, but several of the controls seemed overly complex and the interior space could’ve been managed more efficiently given the car’s humungous exterior size.  

 The Honda CR-V was quite a bit more pleasant to sit in than either the Toyota RAV-4 or the Subaru Forester (both of them felt somewhat cheap).  

 The Hyundai Santa Fe Sport was OK, but its front headrests protruded far too much in front of the seatback itself for a human-shaped driver to be reasonably comfortable.  

 BMW X1 was mighty impressive!

 The Mazda Miata never gets old!

 It’s hard to believe that the Chevy Cruze comes from the same company that made the Cavalier way back when.  I’d go so far as to say that the Cruze has a nicer interior than the new Honda Civic.  That definitely wasn’t the case ten years ago.  

 The Porsches were actually unlocked!  While they were incredible to sit in, I’m not convinced that they were worth four times the asking price of a new Honda Accord LX.  

 The Cadillac ATS was decent but didn’t blow me away.  I also didn’t realize that the base model used a geriatric foot-pedal parking brake as opposed to the electronic one found on the uplevel trims.  

And now onto the vehicles I would seriously consider if I was in the market for a new vehicle.  Before I list the contenders, I would hope that my next car would have as many of the following as possible:  manual transmission, kickin’ stereo, extendable sun visors (one of the best features of my current car), iPhone integration (Bluetooth and USB hookups), good leather seats front and back, lots of cargo flexibility (preferably a wagon or hatchback), and good power and fuel economy.  

 Acura TSX Wagon.  No surprise here.  Fantastic car.  But why won’t they offer it with the TSX sedan’s excellent six-speed manual?  And why doesn’t it have extendable sun visors when the (cheaper) Accord on which it’s based has them?

 Acura ILX.  Surprisingly nice interior given its Civic roots, but backseat headroom stinks, the sun visors don’t extend, and you can get a stick shift and surround sound, but not on the same ILX.  The final nails in the coffin for this one are the one-piece folding rear seat (as opposed to split) and the fact that it’s not that much cheaper than the larger and better TSX.  

 Ford Focus hatchback.  This one was impressive.  They had a Titanium edition 5 speed model at the show, though I would also seriously consider the new ST edition (you’d sacrifice some luxury for a huge boost in power and handling).    It ticked most of the boxes on my list, but at nearly $30K as equipped, it’s dangerously close to entry-level luxury car territory and it’s a FOCUS.  That, and one of the power window switches was catching on the surrounding trim; seems like a pretty bad build quality gaffe on a pricey new car.  

 Mazda CX-5.  You can get one for just over $20K with a six-speed and a decent list of standard equipment.  And it gets 35 MPG on the highway, which is exceptional for a small crossover.  It REALLY impressed me!  But why, why, WHY can’t I get decent options (and colors) without being required to buy an automatic transmission?  They might not even include Bluetooth on the stick-shift model and they definitely don’t offer the upgraded stereo on the base model.  That said, the base six-speed model is still an enormous value with awesome MPG!

 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI, Golf TDI, GTI, and Passat TDI (all with six-speed stick).  These were fantastic cars!  All had split-folding rear seats, three out of the four were hatchbacks or wagons, they all had good extendable sun visors, the interiors were well-made, the seats were outstanding up front and at least decent in the back, and they just felt inexplicably premium.  The wild cards here would be the quality of the sound systems, the availability of iPhone integration, and the long-term reliability.  

 2013 Honda Accord.  It’s a fantastic car.  It has a TON of standard equipment (rear camera, Bluetooth, dual-zone auto climate control, etc.), it’s great on gas, it’s well-built, and it just feels “right”.  But Honda in its infinite wisdom only allows stick-shift sedan buyers the choice of two exterior colors per trim, requires that you get a black cloth interior (gray cloth, ivory cloth, and leather of any color are reserved for automatic buyers), and limits them to the base sound system.  And why can’t they use a split-folding rear seat instead of a one-piece design?  Still a fantastic car, though.  

 Subaru Outback.  Wow!  Just wow!  Truly a comfortable, roomy car in every seat.  Great cargo versatility.  Has all the right connectivity features.  Can’t get a decent stereo with the stick-shift model though.  

 I never thought I’d say this, but, all things considered, my favorite car at the entire show was a Buick.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A Buick Verano.  It had the best front seats of anything I sat in, a good enough back seat for me to ride comfortably for a couple hours (though without as much stretch-out room as the Accord and a few others), a split-folding back seat with a big pass-through (almost makes up for it not being a wagon), extendable visors, good electronics, etc. etc. etc.  And they’re introducing a turbo six-speed edition in 2013 that still gets 30 MPG on the highway while making 250 horsepower.  It’ll include leather, Bose sound system, heated seats and steering wheel, and the list goes on and on.  And virtually every critical review that’s been published about the Verano Turbo has been glowing!  

Am I suddenly 85 years old?  Or has the GM bankruptcy of 2008-2009 been among the best things to ever happen to the auto industry?

Monday, August 27, 2012

The American Auto Industry Restructuring

Here's the note I wrote in 2008 about how the American automakers should have restructured back in 2008-2009.  Let's see if how it compares to what actually happened.  

General Motors:

Ditch all brands save for Chevy and Cadillac. Get Saab back to Sweden and put an end to the badge-engineered crap already. Ditch Hummer altogether. 

---  Well, they ditched most of their brands, and kept four.  They got rid of Saab, but it evaporated anyway.  And as for "badge-engineered crap", there are only three examples I can think of.  One is the entire GMC Truck lineup, which still blows my mind.  Why keep the most redundant brand around?!  The other two examples are the Cadillac Escalade lineup and the Buick Verano (which isn't really badge engineering so much as platform sharing).  

Chevy: Simplify the lineup as follows, ditching all cars except the following:

Cobalt--Replace it with the upcoming Cruze economy car. Offer a 2.2 liter 4 as the base motor, and offer the 2.4 liter Ecotec as an upgrade, with or without turbo/supercharging. 

-----They do indeed offer two motors on the Cruze, and one of them is turbocharged.  Score!

Malibu--Keep as is, only offer a manual transmission with the four cylinder motor. stick shift version, but in the name of fuel economy, the V6 has been replaced by a turbo four and there's a mild hybrid version.  

Impala--Replace the current design with a Chevy-badged Pontiac G8. Offer a 4.6 Northstar V8 in the LTZ model. The G8 GXP, with its monster motor and six speed stick, would become the new Impala SS. 

-----They ended up redesigning the Impala and keeping it as a larger alternative to the Malibu, but it'll be powered by the Malibu's four-banger or the corporate 3.6 liter V6.  However, the SS will be coming over, and it will essentially be a G8 with a Chevy badge, a big V8, and hopefully a 6MT>  

Corvette--Don't change a thing. 

New Camaro, don't change a thing. Just make sure they offer a turbocharged Ecotec 4 as the base motor. 

-----Minus the fact that you still can't get a four-banger in the Camaro, they took my advice.  Wouldn't be surprised to see it, given that the Mustang will probably be getting EcoBoost power soon.  

Give Chevy a version of the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky. It's a good product. 

-----No dice....

Equinox--Replace the current one with a rebadged Saturn Vue. 

-----They did release a new, better Equinox, but it's not the Vue.  However, the Captiva (sold only to rental fleets) is a re-badged Vue.  

Traverse--Keep as is

Keep the Suburban as a fleet special only. 

-----Unfortunately they still offer both the Tahoe and Suburban full-size SUVs.  Not a fan.  

Colorado--Redesign it; it's uncompetitive. Offer it with a turbocharged Ecotec 4, the 3.6 V6, or a 4.6 Northstar V8. 

-----Gonna be redesigned.  Not sure about motors yet.  

Silverado--Keep as is, but replace the 4.3 liter V6 with the 3.6 liter one. Ditch the 4.8 and 5.3 V8s, and replace both with a 4.6 Northstar V8. Keep the 6.0 V8 and 6.6 diesel V8 for heavy duto models. 

-----See above.  

The only motors for the whole lineup would be 2.2 and 2.4 liter Ecotec 4 bangers, the 3.6 V6, the 4.6 liter Northstar V8, the Corvette's (and Impala SS's) V8s, and the Duramax diesel V8. 

-----Aside from the 3.6L V6 being (practically) the only V6 they offer, they haven't done too much as far as engine lineup simplification goes.  


Keep the entire CAR line-up as is....and offer a de-contented DTS sedan with 3.6 V6 for deflecting Buick customers (old farts). Ditch the XLR (too low volume). Move the Escalade onto the Chevy Traverse's platform and power it with either a Northstar V8 or the high power unit from the Corvette/Impala SS/CTS-V. Redesign the SRX and offer 3.6 V6 or Northstar V8 power. 

-----They ditched the old-fart mobiles, kept the excellent CTS (and CTS-V), added a 3-series fighter (the ATS), re-did the SRX, and regrettably kept the Escalade.  

Ok, one company down. Two to go....

Chrysler: Keep all three brands, but eliminate badge-engineering. 

Dodge: Re-do the Caliber's interior, but keep its functionality.

Re-do the Avenger entirely and re-name it the Stratus. Offer a manual gearbox with the 2.4 liter 4 cylinder and make the only V6 upgrade the 3.5 liter one. 

----Nope, they didn't upgrade this car too much aside from the interior.  They did add the company's excellent Pentastar V6 though as the only upgraded engine.  

Freshen the Charger and offer with the 3.5 liter V6, 4.0 liter V6 from the vans, and the Hemi V8s. Ditto for the Challenger, and offer the SRT8 versions of both with 6 speed sticks to take on the Impala/Camaro SS. 

----They upgraded it with the Pentastar V6, but forgot to make a stick available on the hot versions.  

Grand Caravan: Re-do the interior and replace the 3.3 and 3.8 liter motors with the 3.5 V6 from the passenger cars. Offer 8 passenger seating. 

-----They did exactly that, minus the 8 seat capacity and plus an even better motor (the Pentastar).  

Dakota: Re-do it, and offer with 4 liter V6 from vans and Charger/Challenger as the base engine. Offer the Hemi as an upgrade. 

-----They dropped this model, and rightfully so.  

Ram: Keep as is, replace the 3.7 V6 and 4.7 V8 with the 4.0 liter V6. 

-----They added the Pentastar and are phasing out the 4.7 V8.  They also added an 8AT with a rotary shift knob.....strange......

Chrysler: Make this strictly a premium brand. Ditch all models except the.....

300....freshen it up and make it a genuine luxury vehicle. Offer with a 4.0 liter V6 or Hemi V8. 

-----They did exactly that, but instead of a 4.0 V6, they used the Pentastar V6.  

Town and Country: Keep as is; limit engine choices to the 4.0 liter V6. Freshen the interior and offer 8 passenger seating. 

-----See above, and what I wrote under Dodge Grand Caravan.  

Jeep: Ditch everything except the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. Replace the GC's current V6 and 4.7 V8 with a 4.0 liter V6. Keep the Hemi as an option. Offer a stretch version with 3rd row seating as a hook for deflecting Dodge Durango customers. Nicen up the interior. 

-----They still have a few crappy models out there, but the Grand Cherokee is a hell of a lot nicer than it was a few years ago.  Still no seven seat version, though (oh wait, they re-introduced the Durango and it's basically a stretched Grand Cherokee).  


Ditch the Mercury brand altogether. 

-----Look what happened!

Import the European Focus. Our current one stinks. 

-----Look what happened!

Keep the 2010 Fusion as is. Ditto for the Taurus. 

-----New Fusion looks KILLER.  Taurus is getting a bit old.  

Kill off the Crown Vic and Lincoln Town Car. 

-----Look what happened.  

Re-do the Ranger and offer with turbo 4 or 3.5 V6 power. 

-----It's no longer sold here.  

Keep F-series as is, replace engine lineup with either Eco V6 or 5.4 V8. 

-----Yup, it has the EcoBoost V6 now and it's selling crazily well!

Keep extended length Expedition for fleet sales. 

-----Both Expedition models are around, still.....ugh!

Ditch all other SUVs except the Flex and Edge. Offer 8 passenger seating in the Flex, and offer a turbo 4 motor in the Edge. 

-----Nope.....the Explorer was re-done, as was the Escape.  Both are decent.  And indeed, I'm pretty sure they all offer the EcoBoost four-banger now.  

Keep the Mustang as a niche vehicle. But make the manual gearbox a 6 speed already?!

-----Look what happeened.  

As for Lincoln.....keep the MKZ and MKS as they are, but offer a V8 in the MKS. Move the Navigator to the Flex platform and make it visually distinct. Differentiate the MKX from the Flex more than it already is and offer a 3rd row of seats. 

-----This brand still needs a kick in the butt!

And I'll still happily be driving my 99 Honda Accord for years to come as these 3 companies try to get their shit together.

-----In summary, all three companies ended up implementing several of the changes I thought (in 2009) that they should implement.  I still might do a couple things differently but color me impressed.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rental Car Review -- 2012 Nissan Sentra 2.0S

As some of you know, I took a three-day trip to Bloomington, Indiana in early July to attend the wedding of one of my closest personal friends.  He also happens to be a killer musician and composer; you should check his stuff out at .  It was a FANTASTIC weekend on so many levels!

Ok, Dan, what does all that have to do with the title of this post?  Oh, yeah, I rented a car while in Indiana from Ace Rent-A-Car.  If you've never heard of Ace, well, you live under a rock.  Nah, in all seriousness, they only have locations in the Indiana area.  That said, they were courteous and professional, and transported me between their location and the Indianapolis Int'l Airport in a sweet Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.  Their prices were more than reasonable, too, and they weren't inordinately pushy regarding the unnecessary insurance options they offered.

Onto the car, now. . .

Whenever I would accompany my father to rental car counters in the past (something I did on several occasions), he would be offered a choice of two to three different vehicles, and usually none of the choices matched the specific model listed on the website.  With that in mind, I debated internally which car I would select if offered the choice in the "midsize" class (with a couple exceptions, midsize in rental car terminology really equals compact in EPA terminology).  My top choices would have been, in no particular order, the Chevy Cruze, the Ford Focus, the Hyundai Elantra, or the Honda Civic.

However, I was told that they had a Nissan Sentra for me.  Surprisingly, there was no choice between that model and another one.  Coincidentally, the Sentra was the car listed on their website when I booked the rental.  It worked out ok, though, as the car did what I needed it to do just fine.  I was surprised about a few things, though, and some of these surprises were of the pleasant variety.

I got in the car and, as I always do when entering a car for the first time, adjusted my seat, mirrors, etc.  Doing so was generally straightforward, and most every control was where I expected it to be.  I optimistically searched for Bluetooth buttons on the steering wheel (fruitlessly) and a USB port through which to connect my iPhone (semi-fruitfully).  What I found was an eighth-inch auxiliary input jack on the stereo head unit (a standard feature in most new cars today), as well as what looked to be an old tower PC's parallel port on crack (labeled "iPod").  Given that no cable was present for the "iPod"port, I proceeded to connect my phone through the auxiliary jack.  Just as I finished up, the rental car guy returned with the requisite iPod cable.  I plugged it in and.....boom!  I could now control the music end of my phone through the stereo's head unit and steering-wheel controls.  I still don't understand why certain manufacturers require specific cables to use their iPod interfaces (Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, and Volkswagen, I'm talking to you), but having such an interface was nice, as my 2010 Accord only has the auxiliary input jack.

I drove away from the rental car lot, parked after a few minutes, and fiddled with the tone controls on the stereo.  Once I doped them out, I realized that the stereo sounded quite good for an econobox, non-name brand system.  Bass was more earthy than in my Accord, and the clarity was definitely better-than-acceptable.  Could this system rival the ELS surround system in a new Acura?  Not a chance.  For an OEM system, though, it was more than OK.  My one ergonomic beef with the stereo (and actually with the entire car) was that the display screen was small, which made scrolling through song or album titles a bit of a tedious process.

After leaving the lot, I noticed a few other things.  First, I noticed that the outside temperature gauge was showing triple digit temperatures.  They stayed that way all weekend.  I also noticed that the air conditioner (controlled by three simple knobs, each containing one button) generally had no trouble keeping up with such temperatures.  I've been in cars with subpar air conditioners (Mazda comes to mind) so this was a nice surprise.

The car rode pleasantly enough, though larger bumps reminded me that, yes, I was driving a compact car (and one in its final years before a redesign).  I don't know this for sure but I'd guess that the steering was electrically assisted, given the insanely low effort and the notable lack of road feel.  Roadholding was OK for the most part but, again, it was obvious that this was a Sentra 2.0S and not the sportier SE-R Spec V model.

Lots of my driving was done at highway speeds, and at these speeds, the Sentra was impressively quiet for a compact car, and adequately quiet when compared to larger cars like my Accord.  This, combined with the responsive cruise control, made this an easy car to drive on the highway.

That said, the seats were a bit disappointing.  I like firm, supportive seats in my cars, and my Accord has the firmest seats I've sat in.  These seats were quite soft, which was nice for my first five minutes in the car.  After a while, though, they just didn't cut it.  That, and after setting the driver's seat so I could drive comfortably, rear legroom all but vanished.  My Accord can seat six footers one behind the other, comfortably.

Also disappointing was the drivetrain.  The Sentra 2.0S, as suggested by its name, has a 2.0 liter inline-four engine.  In the S model, this engine is mated to a CVT (continuously variable transmission).  CVTs, unlike conventional automatic (or manual) transmissions, don't have a pre-set number of gear ratios.  They utilize a belt and pulley system, and the pulleys change in diameter to continuously vary the ratio of engine speed to vehicle speed.  These transmissions have replaced conventional automatics in most of Nissan's lineup, and are becoming increasingly common in other manufacturers' lineups (Subarus and front wheel drive Audis come to mind).  Why?  The EPA tends to rate CVT-driven cars' fuel economy higher than that of cars with normal (torque-converter) automatics.  I wouldn't be surprised to see CVTs proliferate through more manufacturers' spec sheets in the future, and I have mixed feelings about this.  As for how the CVT performed in the Sentra.....well, it was less annoying than I thought it'd be.  It was still annoying though.

Because they don't have stepped gear ratios, CVTs eliminate most of the "shift-shock" experienced by people in manual or automatic transmission-equipped vehicles, which translates to a smoother ride when accelerating.  However, CVTs tend to peg the engine's RPM at its power or torque peak until cruising speed is reached (depending on how much acceleration the driver's right foot demands).  This results in an irritating, droning sound until the car reaches a set speed (at this point, the pulleys change diameter and the engine slows down to a couple thousand RPM).  In a car with a torquey V6 engine, I could see a CVT being reasonable (the engine would have enough power that the transmission wouldn't constantly peg it at its redline).  However, in a smaller car with a small four-banger (like the Sentra), there simply wasn't enough power (a) for quick bursts of acceleration or (b) for the engine's drone to not become annoying after a while.  I had to floor the gas on several occasions to accelerate reasonably, and it was loud.

Lastly, I'd like to discuss several contradictions and curiosities I noticed in my time with the Sentra.  So, in no particular order . . .

1.  The headliner was made of a luxurious, woven material, but several other trim pieces were made of hard, unyielding plastic.

2.  The car came with keyless entry, however not only did the keyfob lack a trunk button, but opening the trunk with the key if the doors were not first unlocked set off the car's alarm system.

3.  The car looked to have two map lights by the rearview mirror, when in fact, it was really only a single light.  Cost cutting, anyone?

4.  The climate control knobs rotated with true, machined precision, but the turn signal stalk felt flimsy.

In summary, the Sentra worked just fine as a rental car.  That said, I don't see myself buying one anytime soon.  It's not because it's a bad car (it's not), but it strikes me as the budget-priced compact car that Buick never had in the 2000s.  Here's why:

1.  The seats were soft and initially comfortable, but support faded after a while.  Sounds like Buick.
2.  The A/C was easy to use, and was strong.  Again, sounds like Buick (or any other American car).
3.  While the CVT caused the engine to drone under my heavy right foot, it was smooth.  That, and the more conservative acceleration habits of an older customer likely would keep the engine spinning at a reasonable enough speed so as not to be annoying.
4.  The car was impressively quiet for its size.  Again, like a Buick.
5.  The ride was smooth, the car was very easy to drive, the handling wasn't even close to sporty, and the steering was effortlessly light and devoid of any road feel.  Sounds like a Buick to me.
6.  Fit-and-finish was hit or miss, and some materials left something to be desired.  Buick all the way.
7.  The car worked just fine as an appliance, but did nothing to ignite any passion.  Oh so Buick.

By Buick, I'm referring to the brand before GM went bankrupt and re-organized itself.  At that time (and before), the Sentra seemed quite competitive, while several GM products (particularly the Buicks) had gotten long-in-the-tooth.  In 2012, however, Buick is putting out some great products (if I wrote that even two years ago, I'd be questioning my own sanity), and it's the Sentra that felt long-in-the-tooth.  My, how the tables have turned.

Long time no post . . .

I'm back!  My apologies for the delay between posts, but I'm hoping to post at least twice a week starting tonight!  So here goes!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Taco Bell Review

Yes, it's true, my first ever visit to Taco Bell took place this past Friday, June 22nd, at approximately 10:30 PM.  Actually, I lied.  In 2006, I did drive a couple friends from college to the Massena franchise (25 miles north of Potsdam, where I attended school at the time), but I chose the Wendys in the mall food court for my dinner, as (a) there was (inexplicably) no Wendys in Potsdam and (b) I'm not a huge fan of Mexican cuisine.  To add to the epicness of that trip, I missed a turn on the way back and wound up at what I thought was a cornfield.  It turned out to be the St. Lawrence river.  Whoops!  Given that we were in an old car (1992 Honda Accord) sans GPS or smartphone (this was early 2006), we had to have some friends MapQuest us back to campus via cell phone.  I could write an entire post about that excursion, but you're here to read about Taco Bell . . .

As previously stated, I'm not a huge fan of Mexican food, but I am a huge fan of other greasy, beefy, flatulence-inducing grub.  After some convincing from Sean (my colleague) and Jess (his wife), I decided to try it out with them after my students graduated last Friday.  I ended up liking it quite a bit.  Would I choose it over Wendy's? Probably not.  Over Burger King?  Quite possibly, depending on my mood.  Over McDonalds?  Without a doubt!  (Don't be surprised to see a fast food comparison test posted sometime this summer.)

We arrived at a fairly busy time.  One of the first things that stuck out was the ambience; it reminded me of a late-night college dining court, and brought back fond memories of Potsdam's Nite Owl.  The lady at the counter (the only one working the counter that night) was extremely pleasant, despite the crowd.  It was clean.  Lastly, the prices appeared to be extremely reasonable, on par with Wendy's (IMHO, the current champ for fast food value if you order the right items).  

After much deliberation and consultation with Sean and Jess, I decided on the Three Cheese Roll-Up, the Beefy 5-Layer Burrito, the Steak Quesadilla, and a tall glass of much-needed ice water (the graduation ceremony I came from had taken place in an absurdly hot and stuffy gymnasium).  I was warned that it would be a deceptively large amount of food, but being myself, I ordered it anyway.  I left very, very full, but not disgustingly so.  

I started with the Roll-Up . . . and it was awesome!!!  The cheese was a nice mixture of gooey, stretchy, and sloppy, and it was a very satisfying start to the meal.  I then dove into the quesadilla, which was one of the better ones I've had.  The burrito came last, and holy crap it was filling!  I quickly ditched the sour cream (not a fan) and dove into the beefy goodness, only to be (pleasantly) surprised by an explosion of melted cheese!  

All in all, a very good meal!  I'm glad I went!  

What's your favorite restaurant you took forever to go to and then ended up really enjoying?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Economical Oil Change

As can be guessed by the title of the post, my 2010 Accord went in for an oil change yesterday.  This was the car's sixth oil change, and it will very likely turn 60,000 miles next week.  What???!!!  Shouldn't I have changed the oil about 20 times by now??!!  If I was to follow the old 3 month, 3,000 mile rule, then yes, I should be on my 20th oil change.  Had I followed the Lia Honda oil change reminder sticker religiously over the last two years, I would be on my 12th oil change (they recommend it every 4 months or 5,000 miles).

But, thankfully, I read my owner's manual immediately after taking delivery of my car.  I learned that, while some makes and models still go by a specified oil change interval (Subaru actually demands that, on six cylinder Outbacks, the first oil change occur before the 5,000 mile milestone), Honda (among others) now uses a "Maintenance Minder" system in its vehicles.  A computer (probably one of many) monitors how the car is driven and, by illuminating a wrench icon on the dashboard and a code in the odometer display, calls for maintenance accordingly (pardon the pun; my car is an Accord).  My car has been averaging approximately 10K miles between changes, likely due to the fact that most of my 60K miles have been easy, steady-speed miles.  Had most of my driving been in stop-and-go traffic, in colder weather, I'd likely be seeing closer to a 7,000 mile interval.

As previously mentioned, when maintenance comes due, a wrench lights up, and a code appears.  The codes can indicate maintenance needs such as oil changes, tire rotations, transmission fluid changes (which, amazingly, my car has not called for yet), various inspections, etc.  The "A1" code is the one I've gotten on most occasions, and it stands for a simple oil change (the filter doesn't even need to be replaced, though I've had this done) and tire rotation.  However, I got a "B12" code this weekend.  The manual told me that this service included the expected oil change and tire rotation, as well as the replacement of the engine and cabin air filters (something I'd done recently) and a slew of inspections.

I could have paid the dealer an exorbitant fee to do the "B12 service", but I did not.  Realizing that they'll inspect anything that could go wrong (and make them money) any time the car is in for service, and that my filters had been changed recently, I opted to pay for an oil change and tire rotation, a la carte.  Why pay for inspections that I'd get for free anyway?  I'm pretty sure I paid less than half what the B12 service would've cost.  I was out the door for about $42, including tax.  And the car checked out great!

So, here's the moral of the story.  Read your owner's manual, and only pay for what you need to pay for, even if it means doing your homework and turning down unnecessary services recommended by the dealer.  Beyond saving money, you'll be doing your part to save the environment (prematurely replaced motor oil isn't exactly the cleanest thing to dispose of).

Feel free to share your $0.02 on this topic!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why I might be too old for the lawn at SPAC....

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing the Dave Matthews Band at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.  I have been privileged enough to see this band in concert over a dozen times, most of which have been at SPAC.  I've sat in the amphitheater on a few occasions (including night one in 2005 when all meteorological hell broke loose), but I've usually enjoyed the concerts from the lawn and, until this weekend, have considered this to be the preferred way to attend shows at SPAC.  I still think the lawn is preferable for most shows there, though when I see DMB there again, it will most likely be from the amphitheater, despite the price savings of lawn tickets.  Here's why:

1.  New speakers for the lawn were installed within the last year at SPAC and I hate to say it, but the old ones sounded better IMHO.  I was fairly close to the front of the lawn on Friday night and the separation of sound (clarity of each instrument) was absolutely horrid.  It wasn't as bad as listening to Peter Griffin from Family Guy throwing up in slow motion, but it was close.  It was unfortunate, too, as I thought the song selection for Friday's show was among the best I've EVER seen from DMB!  I stood farther back on Saturday and, while the mix was significantly better than at Friday's show, it still had lots of room for improvement.  I suspect that the sound would be much improved in the amphitheater.

More significantly, though . . .

2.  As is to be expected at a DMB show, the drunkenness and highness of the crowd was off the charts.  I had beer cans dropped behind me, and spilled onto my brand new sneakers, at least twice this weekend.  I nearly got high, secondhand, from all of the pot smoke around me.  This was to be expected, but I'm a bit less tolerant of it in my old(er) age than I was five or ten years ago.

Due to people's resulting lack of inhibitions . . .

3.  The audience behavior was atrocious.  I use the term audience behavior very loosely here, as I understand that DMB concerts are not formal events.  I also fully understand, and enjoy, cheering for a great band as they perform.  It adds greatly to the vibe of the event, when done right.  Key words: "when done right.".  If you're going to go crazy for a killer Jeff Coffin sax solo, do it when he FINISHES soloing, or at the very least when the volume on stage is at a high point, but PLEASE don't do it when he's warming into his solo.  You might think it's cool, but how the hell can you hear what he's playing if you're making more noise than he is?  And DEFINITELY don't do it during a quiet ballad!  There were some heart-wrenchingly beautiful moments on stage that were ruined by poorly timed whistles, cheers, and yells.  You paid good money to hear great music, so why not HEAR the music?  Maybe I'm just getting old and crotchety.

All in all.....DMB is a great band and they put on a hell of a show.  If you've never seen them live, you owe it to yourself to do so at least once!  I'll be back to see them many times. I can't help but wonder, though, how much GREATER the shows would be if people made some adjustments to their activities, listened to the MUSIC more attentively, and allowed others to do the same?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Long Island Road Trip Part 1 -- The Cars and the "Trip" part of the trip

On Friday, May 25th, at about 12:30 PM, I stepped into my 2010 Honda Accord EX and embarked on a journey to the center of the earth.  By center of the earth, I mean Moriches, Long Island.  Who knows, if we keep getting rain like we've been getting, Long Island could be at the center of the earth eventually.

Anyway, before I dive too deeply into this post, I want to emphasize the importance of having a road trip buddy.  My good friend Callie rode down and back with me and was an absolutely kickass person with whom to share this trip.

But alas, back to the automotive side of things.  As previously stated, we took the trip in my Accord, and it proved to be a highly agreeable steed.  Here is a little background on the car:

1.  It is just under two years old, and just turned 58,000 miles.  It still drives pretty much the way it did when it was new.

2.  The only work I've had done has been rear brakes at just over 40K miles and new tires at around the same time.  Other than that, it's just been oil changes and tire rotations as dictated by the Oil Life Monitor system.  The car has demanded these services every 9,000 or 10,000 miles.  (I'll save the "should you change your oil every 3,000 miles?" debate for another post.)  There was one recall done that involved the electronic programming of the engine, and when I first took delivery of the car, I had to bring it to a dealer so they could correct the mis-installation of a couple fuses by the dealer who sold me the car.  Otherwise, no warranty repairs or other issues.  Just the aforementioned wear items.  That's why I love Honda products as much as I do.

3.  My car is the midlevel EX trim line, with a five-speed manual transmission.  The exterior color is black and the interior color is ivory with faux-wood trim.  This is an extremely rare combination and I had to buy it out-of-state, as there were none near me in NY.  It gets better . . . the dealer from whom I purchased the car had to have it brought in from ANOTHER state.  That said, they (Balise Honda in Springfield, MA) still sold it to me for $1600 under INVOICE price AND delivered it to my place of residence (an hour and a half from the dealer).  I could have very easily "settled" on a model with an automatic transmission and bought one off of a local lot, but every time I drive my car, I'm reminded of why I'm glad I got the stick-shift version, despite the extra "hurdles".

The trip began at my apartment in Coxsackie, NY and initially took us across the Rip Van Winkle bridge, through Germantown (where I work), and eventually to the Taconic State Parkway.  The Taconic is a free alternative to the I-87 stretch of the NYS Thruway, albeit with a 55 mph speed limit (the Thruway is generally 65 mph), no usable breakdown lanes, a larger presence of deer, and some windy stretches that could prove intimidating to some people when traffic gets thicker.  We made one stop at a Dunkin Donuts near Arlington, which was directly off of the Parkway.  The tight corners in the Parkway on-ramps (as compared to those on the Thruway) lent me a great opportunity to test the Accord's 0 to 60 acceleration.  While it won't rival a muscle car (or even its V6-powered sibling), my car's 190 horsepower 2.4 liter VTEC four-banger performed quite well.  I redlined it in first, quickly shifted into 2nd, and reached my cruising speed in that gear.  A quick skip-shift into 5th, and I set the cruise control and relaxed for a while.  The 0 to 60 run felt like it took between 7 and 8 seconds.  I did have to downshift a couple times to maintain my speed on the uphill stretches of the Parkway.  No biggie, though, as Honda's manual transmissions and clutches are very easy and intuitive to use.  Honda also doesn't cut the throttle when you upshift from first to second, unlike some manufacturers (cough*Hyundai*cough).

I did have to stop for gas in the Bronx, which wasn't as terrible as I thought it'd be.  Thanks to my Tom-Tom GPS, I was able to get off and on the highway fairly easily.  Yes, the city took some patience, but not once did I feel that driving in it was beyond my capability as a driver.

The Long Island Expressway also wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, though the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane proved a bit maddening.  At first, it seemed great.  We blew past several cars, but later on, we were moving more slowly than the main lanes.  I eventually ducked out of it and onto the main part of the highway again, and from that point on, traffic moved more quickly.  I did notice also what an enormous effect one or two drivers can have on an entire stretch of traffic.  There were a couple Prius drivers going slower than necessary in the HOV lane, with WIDE gaps in front of them. There was also a Lincoln Aviator in the center lane of the regular highway going about 10 below.  Once I got around these drivers, I was in the clear.  Aggressive lane-changing for the win!

We arrived at our destination about four hours and change after hitting the road.  Some final observations about my car and how it performed on this trip:

1.  Not once did I wish for an automatic transmission, even in the occasional stop-and-go traffic on Long Island.

2.  A USB jack, or at a minimum, Bluetooth audio, would've been useful for my iPhone.  Had Callie not been on the trip with me, I would've had to select my music on my phone.  Either of the aforementioned integrations would have allowed me to "DJ" using my steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and the car's audio unit itself.

3.  The sound system itself is decent, but doesn't compare to the ELS Surround system in a 2010 Acura TSX I recently drive.  Even a subwoofer alone would have helped a bit, and had I gotten the EX-L model, I would've had one.  I wouldn't have been able to get a manual transmission, though, and I would've been about $3K or $4K poorer.

4.  The A/C kept us cool and comfy for the duration of the trip.

5.  Road noise on the highway was OK.  Not as quiet as a Toyota, but far from offensive.

6.  The ride/handling balance was outstanding, and the weighting and road feel served up by the hydraulically assisted steering makes me question hate the trend toward electrically assisted steering systems.

7.  While some people aren't crazy about the very firm seats of my car, and their football-esque lumbar balloons, I love them.  I felt great after driving for such a long time.

8.  Gas mileage was in the high 20s, which I think is pretty good for a full-size car, especially given my occasionally heavy right foot and motorhead tendencies (Honda engines make their best power high in the RPM range, and I tend to exploit that on occasion).

Overall, my Accord was a very good road trip vehicle, and would have been even better with better audio electronics and a hair more noise isolation.

Watch for more posts over the next few days focusing on the weekend itself, and the food I consumed!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Inaugural Post!

I’ve been holding off on my first posts in this blog for a couple weeks now, but I think I have the perfect inspiration.  
Last Friday, I drove to Long Island to watch my college roommate (who also happens to be one of my closest friends) get married.  It was an incredible time!  As this blog is entitled “Cars, chow, and so much more”, I’ll cover all three of those aspects over the next few days, with a heavy emphasis on the “so much more” component due to the nature of this excursion.  
Until I elaborate, though, I offer one piece of advice:  Stay in touch with your friends from high school and college.  This past weekend reminded me on so many levels of the value of friendship, and was one of the absolute best weekends of my life!