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McBlog: Keeping Your Cool in the Snow

Our intrepid columnist offers some winter driving tips.

by on Dec.30, 2013

It's been a tough winter. Our expert offers tips for driving safely on snowy roads.

Thirteen Vermont winters and a class win in the Monte Carlo rally might lend me cred as a driver in snow. However, probably even more useful, and certainly more concentrated, are a number of sessions I had over the years at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs CO. (winterdrive.com.)

Learning to drive in conditions of limited traction is the most valuable experience for acquiring car control on any surface. Go take a day’s basic lesson on snow. Or if you’re already hot on the cold stuff stretch your skills with the session suitable for winter rally wannabes. Then treat yourself to a day on the welcoming slopes of Steamboat and make it a winter holiday for the books. Or Facebook.

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But what I’m writing at the moment are random notes on driving in snow, my experiences of it and my suggestions for those struggling with it this winter. Judging from what’s on my TV unfamiliarity is breeding undue contempt.  (Why is a video of someone’s van waltzing inexorably down an incline into a waiting tangle of ovine cars so mesmerizing?)

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McBlog: Fiat Delivers a slap in the face.

Where’s the lease?

by on May.29, 2012

Supermodel Catinel Menghia poses with a Fiat 500 Abarth. She can slap us any day, but why is Fiat punching out its customers? asks McBlog author Denise McCluggage.

Doug, a friend and regular at Santa Fe’s Tuesday Car Table, test drove a Fiat 500 Cabriolet that I had for a week and loved it. But considering our city’s 7000-feet altitude decided a turbo was indicated. He’d wait for the Abarth. He told Fred Vang, another Car Table regular, to order one for him. That’s what Fred does, connects people and cars.

As a Personal Car Consultant he helps clients decide what new car best suits their needs and does all the wheeling-dealing and sees that they get the best deal delivered ding-free and clean to their door.

Fred is fond of telling clients: “You seem to know what you want but do me a favor: dance with a couple more before you get married.”

In this case since Doug had driven a number of alternatives, the dancing was Fred running numbers, checking with many sources for prices on three cars, all with Doug’s options. The three: Mini Cooper S, VW Golf GTI and the Fiat Abarth.

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Fred compiled the numbers on a grid and presented them to Doug with a detailed explanation. Doug said it was like “a slap in the face” like in the Fiat Abarth ad featuring the leggy model Catrinel Menghia, dressed in red and black. And that’s why Doug arrived at our monthly Car Table driving a new VW Golf GTI.

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McBlog: On “Bricks” and Hand Pumps: Musings on New Technology.

Tesla’s battery problems provide a much-needed warning.

by on Mar.01, 2012

Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, shown here .with the Tesla Roadster.

You break it that's your problem, says Tesla founder Elon Musk, shown here with a Tesla Roadster with a working battery.

Editor’s Note: Battery-carmaker Tesla has been roiled in controversy as it turns out customers can turn their car into a virtual “brick” by failing to keep the vehicle charged. We asked our intrepid correspondent, Denise McCluggage to muse on the risks of cutting-edge technologies.

New technologies — or new developments in old technologies – require their users to click out of their half-asleep automatic response and be consciously aware of the best way to deal with this new stuff. When the new patterns of response are tweaked to the most appropriate actions then it’s safe to revert to robot mode.

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From long ago I recall my country cousins on the family homestead had a hand pump on their kitchen sink. The town-kid in me thought this “new” thing was the cat’s pajamas. But then it was updated to mundane faucets much like we had. Star-shaped with “C” and “H” in the center.

The old hand pump simply stopped its intermittent gushing when whoever was pumping stopped pumping. And when the faucets were first installed I remember my cousins had to sometimes turn back to the sink to turn them off. But not for long. The new twist-off behavior quickly replaced the pump technology in their automation map.

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McBlog: Why Joy Costs

Musing to amuse on a washboard road.

by on Nov.14, 2011

The Hyundai Genesis is a delight, says columnist McCluggage, until it hits a washboard road.

I muse to amuse myself. Subject: What particular aspect of development in Asian cars trails European cars the most? I drive and I think. My decision: the suspension systems in Asian cars, specifically the fast improving Hyundai/Kia line-ups, are lacking in the sophistication of the European cars, most specifically the Germans.

I’m thinking in particular about the ability of a suspension system to benefit a car with a smooth, comfortable ride that Americans consider a birth right and yet be able to follow the surface of the road closely enough to afford reliable grip and secure handling.

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I see this as making sure the four contact patches are always as much alike as possible. (A good way to drive, too.) Of course the patches swell and shrink as weight is shifted with steering, braking and accelerating, but any extreme variations means a car is not moving with balance. And dynamic balance, as in any sport, is a good indication of how you’re doing as a driver. Or a car as a driven.

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McBlog: Bob Lutz and the New World Order

We're number on! Says who?

by on Nov.07, 2011

Bob Lutz is back and still shooting from the lip.

Anyone reading or most certainly writing about cars is delighted that Bob Lutz hasn’t gone gently into that good afternoon of retirement after all. Consultant to GM renewed. (Insultant to all deserving of it, if the Lutzian manner hasn’t changed.) Bob was always the go-to guy if a deadline loomed and no lively quotes sprang from a reporter’s notes.

Bob continues to swerve off course when it comes to what is officially OK to talk about. Wow, truly inside info beyond the press release. And he is sure to talk about it in more colorful terms that most. He’s always a car guy; he’s always his own guy. I join the gang that’s glad he’ll be around.

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That said I take the opportunity to disagree with what he said in an interview with a German writer.(I read what only was translated into English not being bilingual as Bob is.)

Bob told the German journalist that the top three car companies in the world were now GM, the Volkswagen group, and the Hyundai group.

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McBlog: Splash/Dash

Make that: Nope/Hope

by on Jun.17, 2011

Want to have us clean your windshield and check your oil, too? Dario Franchitti pits at the 2011 Indy 500.

Is it just me or are there more fuel management problems than usual in racing?

Take Chip Ganassi’s team at Indy’s 100th anniversary run. A one-two finish looked to be a lock with either Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti crossing the line first. Dario had set fastest lap of the race; Scott the fastest lap while leading. Combined they were assured of having led more than half the race already. At worst, with the pair on different fuel strategies, Chip was confident that one or the other of his drivers would be guzzling milk in Victory Lane.

Then the one-two finish turned to five-twelve as the checker dropped. Thanks to bloody running low on gas! (Well, more correctly, ethanol. Indy fuel is E98 with only 2% a gasoline blend.)

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The Tarjay folk were not the only team with blips in their fuel strategy – there was splashing and dashing going on in the pits as the end neared. For instance Danica, leading for ten laps, dropped to 10th after a needed fuel stop. A yellow might have made a difference. But in qualifying both Target cars ran out of fuel. Hello! A teaching moment here? Suggestion: replace some computers or the ones paying attention to them. There’s a mis-connect here.

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A McBlog Sidebar

The worst of time (can be) the best of times.

by on May.16, 2011

Storm clouds on the horizon? Buying some cars, like the Prius, can be a challenge right now.

Buying a car, these days, can test the patience of Job, columnist Denise McCluggage noted in her latest McBlog, yet the worst of times can turn into the best of times…with a little help. Here’s a sidebar to her column.

Fred Vang is a personal consultant to car shoppers. He lives in Santa Fe NM but his clients come from anywhere. He helps them gel their amorphous thoughts about acquiring a new car into something he can actually search for. He negotiates the deal, he handles the documentation and registration and arranges all the delivery details. In short he drains the tension out of acquiring a new vehicle and enhances the pleasures.

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In the current market that’s hard to do but his long-held connections still leave the door ajar.

Fred sees a bright spot even in a market with new models in limited supply and used cars tagged with extremely high prices. “The worst of times can be the best of times for a few,” he says. And those few are people just coming off a lease.

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McBlog: Toyota and the Trials of Job

“All the dealing is over. Everything’s over.”

by on May.13, 2011

Held captive by disbelief we watched on TV that improbable tsunami, dark with disturbed sand, textured with the detritus of people’s lives ranging from children’s plastic sandals to grown-ups’ cars. How could this be? An uncontrollable King Kong nightmare flinging recognizable everyday things across a mundane landscape.

Our brains struggled to wrench some sense from the sight of seaside warehouses and absurdly colored plastic tubs, equally freed of normality, floating off together in a frothing soup in which cars bobbed like Halloween apples. Cars! And inexorably the invading wave rolled ever higher, up concrete stairs step by step where observers certain of their safe perch, were suddenly faced by a frothing mastiff broken free of its chain.

Disbelief. Theirs and ours. How often did we go back to our computers to view it again, stilled stunned.

But did we have any idea how it would disturb the way cars are bought and sold in our own neighborhoods?

The tsunami has slunk back to sea but it has not ended. It is now sweeping a ghostly wave, delayed but no less dismaying, across the lives of those who buy and sell cars in the rest of the world. Dealers in Japanese cars particularly are like those people on the cement stairway, incredulous at the inching reach of the murderous wave and the destructive quake that set it in motion.

It’s simple. People who make their living selling cars cannot make a living without cars to sell. And one by one Japanese car makers have announced delays and reduced production in one after another models. More recently they are telling dealers to expect some 10-20% of the cars they usually wheel off the transporters.

My friend (call him Fred Vang because that’s his name) buys cars for clients who prefer to avoid the discomforts of the dealing ritual or the esoterica of contracts. He told me of a distraught phone call from a simpatico commercial manager at a Toyota dealership (you can call him Al because that’s not his name). Al had provided Fred’s clients the past year with 25 to 30 satisfying deals on cars that pleased them right down to the garage floor. That’s Fred’s purpose in life as he sees it – matching car to buyer in an all-around smile fest. Al has aided that quest for 15 years.

But Al told Fred: “All the dealing is over. Everything’s over.” The sheet listing cars eligible for incentive support was chock full one day, the next day all but blank. Two cars. “Where we used to get 300 cars we will now get 30,” Al told Fred. The two have had a great working relationship just as Fred has with others and a range of dealerships across the country. They have built trust and familiarity. No games to play. No time wasted. Fred could tell Al what a client was hoping for and Al with phone and computer would search the country. Success might depend on some swapping of cars among two or more other dealers – like kids with steelies and aggies at the corner lot. (Or do kids swap marbles anymore?)

A RAV4 V6 with all-wheel drive in a beachy sand color the client liked had just been delivered to a woman in Georgia. Big deal? Yes, because it was likely the only RAV4 in the whole country that color with the other stuff on it the way she wanted. Al had tracked it down, the deal was satisfying and the RAV4 now lives in Atlanta. The last deal of its kind before the tsunami arrived at the showroom door where Al plies his trade. “Tell her how lucky she is,” a dejected Al had said.

At first, shortly after the wave receded, the first far-reaching effect felt in the car world seemed almost amusing. The earth shook under the sea near a distant shore and the result was a car shopper in Kansas couldn’t get his Ford Explorer in the Tuxedo Black he wanted. A few shades of red and some blacks were simply no longer a choice. A small company in the devastated area, the lone source of a component that added a sparkle and depth to those particular paints had been put out of commission.

Globalspeak anyone? Butterfly wings in the forest indeed.

Similar breaks in tangled webs of interdependence followed. Parts that fit in the palm of a hand were made by suppliers. Even suppliers to suppliers. The small plants were in critical areas. And thus the parts they were responsible for were not in time for just-in-time. Damage at the source meant disruption at the line. A tooth in the cog went missing. The assembly process looked like a first grader’s smile.

Shutting down was the only choice until the roads were reconstructed, small factories were repaired and the gaps were filled. By mid-May Tuxedo Black was again available, but some observers said six months was a more likely time span to see production fully recovered from the quake/wave damage.

Al had said there could be no more distant Fred clients relying on emails, phone calls and FedEx. Now anyone looking to buy one of the rare cars must come in, close the door, sit in an office and be fixed with salesman smiles and finance officer frowns. And never mind option boxes – the extras were-pre-selected. Chromed wheels added with the cars barely off the transporter. All of those “rust and dust” specials as the vernacular has it. ADMs, the dealer-added extras, could boost the car’s drive-away cost by $2000 to $6000.

It’s survivor time.

With the dealer getting fewer cars each one must earn a greater share. A dealership that a few weeks before was making it on volume — waving product out the door ASAP with certainty more would be rolling in to keep black ink on the books – had to change operating procedure instantly. Now it would be the gross profit on each unit that mattered. Slow down. Make each one count: Not: “Would you like fries with that?” Instead: “Fries come with that.” If someone in the buyer’s seat says: “But I don’t want fries,” the sales manager opens the office door and calls out “Next”.

The drastic drop in product supply has not shown up equally in all markets. Fred said: “I think it started on the West Coast into the Rockies and has now jumped East. The Midwest may be slower to get it. But it will be world wide.”

Al called Fred again a few days after his first distressed call. An enlightened dealership owner had realized as bad as it was now the transporters would one day again roll freely and they could not find the bridges burned. Al told Fred: “He came in to tell me that you and I have worked together for a long time. We should continue that despite the shortage.”

But everyone else gets chrome wheels.

Fred felt compassion for Al’s plight, knocked off his feet by a wave that had long taken its odd flotsam back to sea. How many others like Al were there like him in Japanese dealerships? What a wrenching change of circumstances for them all.

He also felt a tinge of guilt. He could switch his custom to less affected brands. To American makers, to Japanese cars assembled in the US. Supply depended on models. A Subaru dealer he works with had told him that his supply for incentives had dropped from 250 to 21 cars. Japanese-built Imprezas and vehicles built on that platform – WRX and Forester – were already ranging from hard to find to impossible. Gone for sure are those models with manual transmissions. Easier to come by, for now at least, are the Subarus assembled in the US. Fred said the Legacy could now be had for less than an Impreza.

American cars were back on their financial feet again. And rising in the J.D. Powers approval ranks as well. The reports Fred prepares for his clients to help them in their selections were increasingly favorable to US cars. The American 3 should be able to plant a firmer foot in the market place with their competition crippled by circumstances.

And Korean cars most surely would benefit. Even pre-tsunami they had their dukes up ready to battle the Japanese industry. Now, composed of Korean-made parts, their supply was unaffected. The tsunami meant little to the manufacture of Kia and Hyundai. Not that American shoppers knew that. A report stated that visitors to Korean dealerships, as well as Japanese dealerships, had dropped off post-tsunami. Geography-illiterate Americans simply lumped Japan and Korea together. (And then there were those usual mind-numbing claims in the blogosphere that all cars coming from Asia would be radioactive anyhow. You’ll recall that the wave had killed a nuclear power plant in its sortie ashore. But whoo boy.)

Yes, Fred’s clients had good choices. “Detroit” cars, the Korean cars, the US-built cars of the Japanese companies. And then there was all of Europe, wasn’t there? In Fred’s own garage sat an appreciated VW Tiguan. The Tiguan was a good alternative to the RAV4, except the RAV4 had been beating it all hollow on the pricing front of late. Remember, Toyota’s first punch to the gut, long before the earth shook, was a redux of unintended acceleration. Ill-placed floor mats. Whatever. Some claimed ill-designed electronics. But an official investigation had cleared the electronics of fault. Toyota had been all but wrapping RAV4s in Christmas paper as its recovery from that first punch began. Excellent deals at least kept buyers in Toyotas through all its bad press. Gradually those deals tapered toward normality as recovery progressed.

Then came the second punch. That death wave. Harder on Toyota even than on Honda, Nissan, Subaru and Mazda because Toyota still produces more of its cars in its home country that it does abroad, many more than the other Japanese carmakers. (Nissan was reporting increased profits as May deepened.)

Maybe a two-liter “Trials of Job” would be a good next model for Toyota. (Preferably with a diesel.)

Though Fred had taken advantage of the RAV4’s positive marketing, sending lot of them across the country to a pleased clientele, he had prepared for a shrinking supply. The Tiguan is it will be. Except. Guess what he discovered about the safely-German Tiguan? Its transmission is made in Japan !

Is that a problem? It hasn’t seemed to be so far. But the world juddered a bit and shrank a tad more. And the tsunami dampened some more boot soles.

Want to read even more McBlog’s? Check out our columnist’s latest, greatest — and plenty of classic — work on DeniseMcCluggage.com.

McBlog: Racing, The Great Authenticator

When will we know the Koreans have "arrived"?

by on Apr.13, 2011

The track is where a maker -- as much as a driver -- proves its worth. Photo: Denise McCluggage.

Sam Mitani made a point in his May Road & Track column that resonated through me like a temple gong. I’ll get to that but first you’ll welcome some background. Trust me.

In the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 Ray Haroun strapped a mirror in his race car instead of toting the usual swivel-necked riding-mechanic to keep him informed on conditions to the rear. That rear-view mirror found its way into road cars and was about the only thing we could cite as argument that “racing improves the breed”. This was in those mid-century days when our carmakers turned vehemently anti-racing, pulling official participation from NASCAR and forbidding any performance numbers like horsepower to appear in ads. Only comfy-ness and, ooh, rich textures on seats and smiley smiley children with tightly-coifed mothers.

The manufacturers those days were quaking in their white-walls lest a suddenly safety–obsessed government would start decreeing all sorts of standards. Government standards were hive-producing in carmakers. (But then Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook – even before Nader’s ego swelled to its most egregious proportions – might have caused at least minor allergic reactions to anyone fond of wheeled objects.)

Not that improvement of the breed wasn’t something to be wished at that time, particularly by those few of us who had embraced driving as a sport. We were the ones who plastered numbers cut from sticky shelf paper on the sides on our perky little mounts from England, pulled on our knit-back gloves and on weekends cheerfully sped amidst hay bales stacked meanfully on old airports. In post-war years American cars had grown ever more yacht-like, lumbered about on bedspring suspensions and favored interiors upholstered with mouse fur. “Detroit iron” was our disdainful name for these monsters.

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We favored jolting about in much smaller cars, cars that you donned rather than were swallowed by.  Ah yes, many had asthmatic heaters, or none, and sidecurtains that were downright hospitable to rain. But these cars actually stopped within memory of the first application of the brake pedal. They turned corners within then breathtaking inches of where a quick-response steering wheel – the size of a large pizza — bade the skinny tall tires to go. The home-grown puffed-cheek beasts wallowed in the general direction of a chosen course, the steering wheel having required several full turns to influence that choice. The less connection with a road’s surface the more these cars represented Detroit’s intention. The anti-car carmaker ruled.

When did all this change? I would say when Detroit lightened up on trying to anticipate what Washington might want of them and began noticing customers in important numbers were being enticed off the farm by foreign cars. And vaguely wondered why.

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McBlog: The Nicest Car I Ever Had

Meditations on the merits of Ferraris, Porsches and Colt Vistas.

by on Mar.21, 2011

Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder. But what does our columnist find so appealing in the Colt Vista?

“I think this is the nicest car you ever had,” my mother said to me from the passenger’s seat. Her eyes, still a snapping dark brown in her late 80s, choked off my emergent laugh though that’s the response the remark deserved.

After all we were not in my Porsche, my Alfa, my Lancia, my Ferrari – cars I had owned serially over a few decades. We were not even in the MG-TC in which she had shared an at-limit dart up Mt. Diablo — clinging tightly and smiling broadly though precariously exposed to traffic in this right-hand drive roller skate. Nor were we in the semi-rally-prepped Mini Cooper in which we toured a newly opened-to-foreign-traffic USSR in the mid-1960s.

No. The car she had proclaimed to be my “nicest” ever was a white Colt Vista. Colt Vista! A minivan-tall-station-wagon sort of vehicle that was badged a Dodge and imported in limited numbers when Mitsubishi and Chrysler had some sort of patty-cake relationship.

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Instead of laughing I set to musing about what is it that earns a car the “nicest” title.  I realized that the Colt Vista restored to my mother some fading independence. She did not need my help to get down into it or up out of it like she did in my sportier machines. (SUVS, with their demand for a Sherpa gene to ascend, had not yet invaded the marketplace.) The Vista door opened wide and stayed there yet at least a part of it could be reached while seated to pull it to. The car seat matched her seat height. She could simply turn, plonk down then swing her legs over the low sill. Voila! In.

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