Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bargain Buys on Gas Guzzlers

Gas prices hitting new records every day. Filling up the tank of a great big, gas guzzler SUV or pick-up truck feels like it is costing your entire week's paycheck to drive to the supermarket, where simillarly rising prices eat up another week's paycheck.

It's even a problem for Toyota, which is offering bargain interest rates on certified used Tundra trucks and Sequoia SUVs.

Certified pre-owned anything is a great deal. I'm a great believer in CPO vehicles. These are leased cars and trucks, and the conditions of the lease mean they are in better condition, and with lower mileage after two or three years. They come with new-car manufacturer and dealer warranties, even some brands even include 24/7 roadside assistance. Much more reliable than a 'plain vanilla' WYSIWYG used car.

Toyota is offering a low 2.9% interest rate for up to 66 months. That can save you $50-$60 a month in interest payments -- or the price of filling up the thirsty tank one time. "We're excited to offer this special program for our customers and dealers alike," said Norm Olson, sales operations manager of Toyota Certified Used Vehicles.

He's probably excited that maybe -- just maybe -- there's a sucker out there who thinks $4 gasoline is a good time to buy a 6500 pound hulk that gets 14/17 mpg according to the EPA, even less by the automotive website Let's do the math.

$60 a month interest saved, monster Sequoia that gets around 15 MPG, gas $4-plus. Wow, thank you Toyota, for giving me the gift of around 200 miles a month for this great drive. That makes all the difference.

Give me 2.9APR on one of your fuel efficient CPO models, like the Camry or even the RAV4 small SUV, and I'll run, not walk, to the nearest Toyota showroom. Or, maybe I would even drive.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Callaway C16 is a Street-Legal Racecar

Talk about great drives! The Callaway C16 Speedster is not for the timid.

This hand-made speedster is packed with a massive super-charged intercooled 6.2-litre 700HP (yes, 700!) engine, it begs to stretch its legs on the open road or, better yet, a closed racetrack driving day. Possible, now that those other speeders have left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until the next Indianapolis 500 next Memorial Day weekend.

This street-legal racecar is filled with track-style, space-age technology, including carbon wheels that weigh some 40-percent less than the lightest aluminum wheels, for improved acceleration, cornering and braking. Did I mention yet that top speed is over 210MPH, and an astounding zero-to-sixty in just 3.2 seconds?

Reeves Callaway knows a thing or two about fast cars. He has built engines for Indy cars. He has designed turbo-chargers for Porsche, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. And let's not overlook the legendary C4 Callaway Twin Turbo Corvette.

Fast is an understatement. So is calling the C16 Speedster a sleek and sculptured beauty. Much like its predecessors, the 1990 Callaway Speedster and 1998 C12 Speedster, this is a visceral open air driving experience. As we said – not for the timid.

And, as J. Pierpont Morgan once said when somebody asked him about the price of his yacht, if you have to ask you can't afford it.

But you asked. It costs $305,000, but the price includes two silvery helmets for when you take this street-legal racer on the track. Don't ask its MPG rating. You really don't want to know.

Dream on.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Honda and NBC's Last Comic Standing

Honda is introducing its 2009 Pilot in TV commercials that have comics doing 30-second stand-up routines while sitting down, in the passenger seat.

The commercials appear on segments of "Last Comic Standing" for the last few shows of the season, through the end of May. the NBC show allows viewers to vote for their favorite comic.

Comedians who are not in the show do their shticks while one of the show's hosts drives and cameras roll.

Will viewers think the funny commercials are enough to overlook gas prices that can make you cry, not laugh, and buy the 2009 Honda Pilot?

The current 2008 Honda Pilot is rated at 15-16 MPG city and 20-22 MPH highway. That is not a great drive -- that is a great gas guzzler.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Save Gas and Money With Your Tires

The wrong pressure in your tires could be costing you as much as $800 a year in wasted gas. For great drives and fuel efficiency, adjust your tires properly.

There are some 250 million vehicles on the road in the United States. How much money and gas do you think we could save if everybody's tires were inflated properly?

$23 billion and 3.3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved -- not to mention millions of gallons of high-priced gas -- if all our tires were properly inflated.

So forgive the really bad pun -- but -- the only good inflation is proper tire inflation.

Tire pressure changes one pound for every 10 degree change in outside temperature, so warmer spring temperatures mean it is an ideal time to check tire pressure.

Always check pressure when the tires are cold, since driving even a couple of miles to the gas station can provide a false reading.
  • Under-inflation generally provides a smoother ride, but it also causes tires to wear out at the sides, and it wastes gas because tires need more power to push the vehicle.

  • Higher pressure generally results in improved steering response and fuel economy, but a stiffer ride, and it wears out the tread in the center.

Even the experts get it wrong. Top automotive website tested vehicles driven by 212 of their employees and found a bunch substiantially under-inflated and wasting gas. (full disclosure here -- I write for them occasionally) discovered they would save nearly 6,000 gallons of gas a year and about $20,000 of their boss' money, by keeping tires properly inflated.

So go check your tires. It could make your great drive more fuel efficient.

Monday, May 12, 2008

10th Anniversary of VW New Beetle

The VW Beetle is one of the world's most famous, most regognizable vehicles, truly one of the great drives of all time. In 2008, it is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its return.

Cute as a bug, fuel efficient, fun to drive. No wonder the Beetle is a hit with buyers in all age, income, and other demographic groups.

Since being re-launched in 1998, the VW Beetle has sold more than 1,000,000 models -- about half of them in the United States. And many of those are the Beetle convertible, ditto cute and fuel efficient and fun to drive.

Many of those buyers customize The Bug -- as it's also known -- with fancy paint jobs and other modifications. Spoiler, anybody?

Although it uses design cues from its classic predecessor, the Beetle is new, inside and out, with a water-cooled engine, modern safety features, and creature comforts including an iPod jack for the audio system. And, of course, the famous flower power vase.

The American division of Volkswagen is headquartered in Herndon, Virginia. The parent company is headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany, about one hour from Berlin.

Volkswagen also sells Rabbit, GTI, Jetta, GLI, Passat sedan and wagon, Eos, Touareg SUV and the new Routan in North America. But not its super luxury sedan, the Phaeton (think Audi A8), which is sold in Europe and the Middle East.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Renting a Car in Europe

There are some great drives in Europe -- both scenic destinations and wonderful country roads, and some models not available in North America, like the Peugeot.

Renting a car in Europe is expensive -- rates are lowest in Ireland, where it is possible to get a vehicle for under $20 a day. Rental rates for Florence and Rome are double that -- around $40 per day. And car rental rates in Munich and Frankfurt are in between, around $30 a day.

And for that you get a small car with a manual transmission, which can be dangerous for those of us who have been spoiled by automatic transmissions and clutchless sport shifts with names like TipTronic.

That includes me -- yes, even me, who writes about cars and test drives them, too. The thought of a driving a manual transmission in the crazy traffic of Rome or Paris or London fills me with visions of medical evacuation helicopter flights.

If you are staying in Europe for 17 days or longer, you can opt for a long term rental -- in effect, a shor-term lease -- from Auto Europe. You'll get a factory-new Peugeot 308 with fuel-efficient automatic transmission, for as little as $39 a day, based on a 45-day rental.

The deal includes a non-deductible fully comprehensive insurance, the ability to travel into most former Eastern block countries with no additional fees, and 24/7 roadside assistance, most of which cost extra with a 'regular' rental.

Vehicles can be picked up in cities including Amsterdam, Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Frankfurt, Munich, Lisbon, London, Paris, Rome and Zurich.

According to the AAA, more of us this year than last year will be visiting Europe this summer. Read more about where we are travelling on my Green Travels website.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Best Cars Under $18,000

There are still great drives to be found for $18,000 or less, without skimping on creature comfort or safety features, sporty looking and fun to drive. And these affordable new cars are fuel efficient, too, saving you more money at the gas pump.

Cars like this are generally called 'entry level', for first-time buyers, or those who simply can't afford to spend more.

But these bargain-priced beauties are a great drive for anybody who wants features such as a navigation system, hard-drive music storage, voice-controlled iPod integration, Bluetooth phone connectivity, push-button start, leather seating.

All for $18,000 -- or less. So here are the top three cars for $18,000 or less -- according to Kelley Blue Book --

2008 Ford Focus
Definitely a cool car, with Ford's industry-leading SYNC music and phone integration system that allows you, for instance, to play any song in your digital library simply by saying its name. The popular Ford Focus is available as a sedan or a coupe.

  • MSRP -- $15,280, KBB new car book value -- $14,942

2008 Honda Fit
With gas prices on the rise, small cars like the Honda Fit are gaining in popularity. The Fit sips gasoline and offers the sportiest driving experience available in an econo-car. Plus, the seats can be configured in multiple arrangements, so it can easily hold things like your friends, your gear or a medium-sized alpaca (according to a photo on Honda's Web site, anyway).

  • MSRP - $14,585, KBB new car book value -- $14,585

2008 Jeep Patriot
This model has a classic look reminiscent of the departed Jeep Cherokee, plus a functional interior and a price tag under $18,000 price tag even if you upgrade to four-wheel drive. Combined with highway fuel economy up to 28 miles per gallon, the Patriot delivers a cool mix of SUV-like versatility and car-like efficiency for buyers on a budget.

  • MSRP --$16,055, KBB new car book value -- $15,894

Great drives for $18,000 or less, and economy at the gas pump too.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Discount Gas for Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge Buyers

Buy a new Chrysler, Jeep or Dodge and you get a gas discount card that guarantees you pay just $2.99 a gallon for gas for three years.

A great drives deal? Not so fast.

Downside -- You have to buy your new vehicle by June 2, 2008.

Downside -- To get the $2.99 gas card, you have to give up other dealer incentives, like cash rebates.

Downside -- You have to register for the discount gas program, it takes 4-6 weeks to get the discount gas card, and you can fuel up only at eligible gas stations, and there's an annual limit to how much $2.99 gas you can buy.

What is the fill-up limit? Where are these participating stations? Chrysler isn't saying.

But before you drop everything and fall for the $2.99 deal, sit down and calculate how much money this could save you, and whether you'd be better off negotiating for other new car incentives.

Chrysler is calling its program "Let's Refuel America". These Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models are eligible for the discount gas program:

Small/Compact Car -- Dodge Caliber, Chrysler PT Cruiser

Mid-size Car -- Dodge Avenger, Chrysler Sebring, Chrysler Sebring Convertible

Large Car -- Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum

Crossover --Dodge Journey

Minivan -- Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Town and Country

Compact and Mid-Size SUV -- Jeep Patriot, Jeep Compass, Dodge Nitro, Jeep Liberty

Large SUV -- Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Commander, Dodge Durango, Chrysler Aspen

Pickup Truck -- Dodge Dakota, Dodge Ram, Dodge Ram HD.

These models are not eligible for the Let's Refuel America program:

All SRT models, Dodge Viper, Dodge Challenger (pictured), Dodge Ram Chassis Cab, Chrysler Crossfire, Jeep Wrangler and Dodge Sprinter.

Who ever thought $2.99 gas would look like a great drives bargain.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Audi Stars in Iron Man Movie

Iron Man is the summer's blockbuster movie. The Audi R8 is the hot, sold-out great drives car of the moment.

Does Iron Man Tony Stark drive an Audi R8? Of course he does.

Audi is justly celebrating the success of the R8, which was named "best designed car of the year" at the New York Auto Show in March. It's gorgeous. And powerful.

I test drove it recently, and gotta tell you that the torque and power at the lower end of the gearbox is whoa horsey. But in upper gears, it handles like its popular kid sister, the Audi TT -- responsive, no lean on tight turns, a great drive that's also a fun drive. And a serious head-turner, too.

Back to the movie and the A-List -- the Who's Who of Hollywood was chauffered to the movie premiere at the legendary Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, in various Audi models. Time for name-dropping:

Jeff Bridges, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau and Terence Howard arrived in an R8 -- which, BTW, has a 2-year waitlist.

Of course Robert Downey Jr. -- he's Tony Stark, Iron Man. His leading lady, Gwyneth Paltrow, arrived in an Audi A8L W12 sedan, not the sporty Audi S5 she drives in the film.

Jack Black, Leslie Bibb and Vince Vaughn were escorted in the Audi Q7 SUV.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, whose superpowers are the result of the highly versatile and indestructible high-tech armor he developed himself. When he is without his Iron Man suit, the technically-adept billionaire relies on the Audi R8.

There's a special Audi-Iron Man website that includes exclusive behind-the-scenes content, interviews with the cast and crew, Audi Iron Man commercials, background on use of Audi vehicles on the movie set, and more.

Audi and Iron Man -- great drive and a great movie.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Happy 60th Birthday Land Rover

Sixty years ago today, one of the great drives of all time -- Land Rover -- made its first public appearance, at a motor show in Amsterdam. A year later, it went to work for the British Army.

It was an early version of the beefy go-anywhere vehicle, then known as a Series 1. The 1948 Land Rover had a canvas roof, held down with cleats and ties, and a reputation for enjoying mud, rock, ice, sand, and blazing forest trails.

The canvas roof is gone now, except for Land Rovers in use in Africa safari tours as wildlife viewing vehicles. But the love of mud, rock, ice, sand and bushwacking through the forest -- that remains.

Land Rover has come a long way in 60 years. Luxury wasn't part of the design back then. Today, it is known for being both luxurious and tough. And it's still blazing trails, with some revolutionary technology.

Land Rover's patented Terrain Response system is a simple -- for the driver -- knob on the console. Turn it to the icon that indicates your specific driving condition, and the onboard computer adjusts the vehicle's traction and acceleration systems to match it.

I've driven Land Rovers over an oxygen-deprived 16,000 foot pass in Argentina, across a muddy track in Vermont, and over a bridge that was no more than four lashed-together logs. Each time I depended on the Terrain Response system to know -- more than me -- just how much torque and how much braking is needed.

And, I've marvelled at Hill Descent Control, basically a half gear below first gear -- that takes the truck safely down a steep hill. Take your foot off the gas, and the Land Rover concentrates on speed and braking, so you -- the driver -- can concentrate on steering. Did I say speed? Wrong word -- I meant crawl.

Land Rover produces more than 200,000, vehicles a year from its factories near Liverpool and Birmingham, England.

Many of those vehicles have seen hard core service saving lives -- Land Rovers are the vehicle of choice for such humanitarian and animal and earth conservation organizations as Born Free Foundation, Biosphere, Earthwatch, the Royal Geographical Society, and the China Exploration and Research Society.

And there's more innovation in the pipeline. Land Rover engineers are working on a diesel hybrid -- the LRX concept vehicle. That's the vehicle in the photo, above. The LRX concept was on display at the 2008 New York Auto Show in March.

Land Rover -- most definitely one of the world's great drives.