Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hot takes to ward off the winter chill


Story ideas conceived and to some degree pursued then eventually left apathetically to gather virtual dust over the last few months (or longer) by a writer busy prepping lesson plans when not drowning in ennui, some with more substance than others:

1. Pickup trucks are the new pony cars. (This one actually has a point to it, but it also meandered into some kind of sociological argument about changes in the working class and rock music vs. country and so on without actually getting past superficialities. Great for a serious feature article by a pro journalist who can get out and do interviews and so on, not so great for a geek blogger.)

2. Simple is good! Old BMWs and Hondas are good! Quirks and gimmicks get old. (I think I've done this one before.)

3. Hygge but in car form. Insert many getting-snuggly-and-then-some-in-Volvos quips here.

4. Insanely complex million-dollar-plus hypercars are irrelevant. Mostly. Somehow. But maybe not Lamborghinis, just because. It gets philosophical.

5. Cars have identities. But identity is somewhat plastic and evolutionary. And does it matter that a Fiat is built in Japan or that a Corvette doesn't have round taillights? Does anyone care? (That question has an unfortunate double meaning here.)

6. Variations on tired "favorite car/car you'd buy right now" questions to use when necessary: What car do you daydream about most often? What do you want to drive but not own? What car do you think your significant other most wants? (Besides, does anyone really have an all-time single favorite car?)

7. Small and light and balanced and ~200bhp is better than big and heavy and thundering and 500+bhp and obnoxious. (See #2 above alongside many Mustang crash videos.)

8. Joy of vintage racing, good people, cool cars often with license plates, etc.

Dear Lord I need to get out more.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The comfort of the new

At rest in the suburbs of the Lord (with apologies to Peter Matthiessen).
So I'm now closing in on five months into my three-year term with the Jetta, and I think I owe the collective vehicle manufacturers of the world a bit of an apology: having a new car isn't that bad after all.

Yes, really. It's not a total sacrifice of my ideals and ambitions. It's not penance. I didn't sign the lease agreement with a pricked fingertip. I've just had to realize a few things that were too easily glossed over before.

As one of those irascible reactionaries who venerates some past noble age of directness and mechanical integrity - the Golden Era before stability control and networked vehicle systems management and ventilated massaging seats became mandatory either by regulation or product-planner diktat - and who greets each great leap forward into a passive and cosseted future (autonomy! connectivity! active crash mitigation! gesture control!) with a renewed determination to someday have an Alfa 1750GTV as a daily driver, the idea of a New Car has just seemed off-putting.

And it's not just me; a durable common consensus among Hardcore Gearhead Nation is that there are a bare handful of factory-fresh machines which are even remotely desirable or worth serious consideration, especially compared to any number of wonderful and reasonably attainable vintage cars. (And by no means does that select few automatically include upscale speedsters, given their often-questionable usability and eye-watering continuous costs and "am I wearing enough cologne? let's make sure!" owner image.)

But right now I'm okay with the Jetta. This is working. I'm not exactly flooded with a sense of exhilaration and aesthetic fulfillment every morning pre-commute, but this is a net positive state of affairs in the current world. If 2016 has been a year of ongoing disappointment and gathering melancholy, having this thing is definitely one of its much lesser issues.

Part of this state of general contentment is surely due to that fact that the Jetta is a base-model S and as such is spared much of the gratuitous hedonistic/anesthetic silliness that apparently enhances the popular appeal of more upscale cars. Part of it is that it's a pretty good machine on its own merits. Part of it is me growing up a bit.

A few notes behind this Zen-smiley-faced outlook:

1. Given my usage and local conditions there's a primal sense of security derived from something that hasn't aged excessively. Sure, it would be nice to have an E30 325is or a slightly tuned NA Miata, but on a very day-to-day level it's also nice to not have the accompanying 25ish-year-old suspension bushings and coolant hoses and relays and the like. A new car is a not-worn-out car. And a warranty helps.

2. Good marks for well-rounded usable performance. The turbo motor is a bit tricky (more to follow) but once off idle it scoots. Handling is nice and direct without being edgy, ride is well-controlled without being wallowy or brittle. It lacks some of the tossability and forged-aluminum feel - light, simple, strong - of my old Audi Coupe GT, but within its contemporary mainstream paradigm it's very well-resolved.

3. Highway fuel economy has been startlingly high. I have to be driving like one of several varieties of idiot to average less than 40 mpg on the short hop between Norwalk and Bridgeport. An extended run in clean conditions will see the trip average edge up towards 50 mpg indicated. Fuel stops are once every three or so weeks, and I can (and did) make a round trip to Mom, 280 miles away, and back on a single tank. Nothing that I was directly considering would have come close to this. Serious fuel mileage is an underappreciated innate Good too often dismissed by people who see an indulgent permissiveness in low oil prices.

Purely on the side, time spent so far has softened my deep loathing of steering-wheel controls. Yes, I still find the redundant sound-system rockers to be less than unnecessary, but having the trip-computer controls on the right spoke and the cruise-control buttons on the left works really well. (No, I haven't even used the cruise control yet, but it's still good placement.) And Bluetooth isn't the worst thing in the world either.

My one demand going into this car-acquiring situation was that I needed three pedals; turns out that many of the Jetta's quirks revolve around the transmission and its interplay with the motor. Most immediately, gearing is astronomically high - 1st overall is 12.6 to 1, which puts it at about 1 1/2th in most gearboxes, and 5th overall is a Mulsanne Straght-grade 2.11 to 1 -  which helps explain both the excellent fuel economy and my occasional tendency to stall during the first few weeks around town. Well-judged clutch slip is a constant part of life.

That, um, relaxed gearing also means that getting into the power at highway speeds often requires an assertive downshift to 3rd - and trying to rev-match across a big gap with nonlinear pedal response (ECU tuning? random effect of boost factored in?) makes a smooth shift almost impossible. I've taken to a very deliberate and slowish 5th-to-4th-to-3rd approach in appropriate cases, even if it means sometimes forgoing a potential opening in the midst of oblivious and uncooperative Connecticut drivers.

It's interesting: When I was growing up in the '80s turbos were all heady top-end rush with a gutless low end as the accepted tradeoff; think 930s or F1 cars. This one, and by received description apparently many more using this kind of trendy boosted-low-displacement approach, instead is punchy and torquey from something like 1200-1500 up to maybe 5000 where it runs out of breath. I can get a nice assertive jump away from a stoplight with a bit of clutch/throttle shuffling, but short-shifting is required to keep things at max pull.

That's about it as far as unintuitive behavior goes here, which also kind of parallels my one standing disappointment with the car: it doesn't have much character. It's very rational and well-considered, sure, but it doesn't do much for the soul. It is businesslike in the straightest sense of the term. It has no interest in pursuing even a taste of the Bohemian sensibility of its air-cooled and A1-chassis ancestors and very clearly wants to grow up to be an Audi A6 instead.

­čÄ╝Don't be afraid of the dark....
That's part of what goes with buying new, though. Charm is something that tends to get picked up along the way with mileage and the influence of an owner's personality. Cool old cars often - usually? -  start out as shiny, emotionally inert new cars and only earn their panache over time.

I've been trying to work with my end of this bargain, jazz it up a bit with a few well-considered stickers, trying to think of what else could be reasonably done to shift it leftward out of its spreadsheet mentality, but at the same time am mostly resigned to it being what it is for now.

And, again, it's good. It works. It isn't a betrayal of the central idea of a driving machine, even if it is mainstream and slightly tech-ish and has mandatory stability control and fat A-pillars and (some of) the rest that generally comes with being a new car in 2016.

Of course, part of being good is again also because it's new, and in so being it's not a continuously suspect pile of aging electronics and decaying rubber pieces and incidents that the previous owner decided were best left unspoken during the sales process. And on the flip it's also the beneficiary of plenty of genuine progress in safety and useful tech and engineering - and their subsequent trickle-down availability - in recent years. Hey, a streetable turbo 4-valve motor putting out over 100hp/liter bolted into a solid chassis with multilink suspension and discs at each corner? This didn't really exist at anything less than Serious Money all that long ago.

Even the curmudgeons have a bit more reason to be comfortable with the status quo. Peak New Cars Suck was probably about five years ago, to be honest. Since then the market has seen more than a few good choices show up, especially at the lower end. We now have the hugely desirable Ford STs and the return to form of the new Civic (Si and R-Type still inbound but happily anticipated) and the vintage-Alfa-reincarnate brilliance of the Mazda3 and the flawed but still wonderful Toyobaru 86 and the ever-developing goodness of the Miata and the VW GTI and GLI. Maybe even include the Chevy Cruze and Kia Soul if we just want something really good to recommend to the neighbor who can't tell a braking point from a shift point. All of which are perfectly desirable and satisfying from a purist perspective.

And many of which have a bit more character than the Jetta - especially the sneaky superstar of the bunch, the Fiesta ST - and so maybe the undeniable logic of a very agreeable monthly payment means I'm missing out. Tradeoffs.

Simple is good. Simple and cheap is very good. Simple and cheap and hugely fun is very, very good.
But tradeoffs go every way, too. And how much do you trade to have this insulation around anxieties about electrical gremlins and expensive suspension rebuilds?

Depends on the cars, of course. Or what you do to the cars in the process. Think first-gen Miata, with the likely-for-me installation of a Racing Beat suspension kit and the consequent ability to renew much of what has aged. Think E30 and the simple-but-evolved effectiveness of its systems from the two-valve straight-six to the trailing-arm suspension and how those can also be refreshed on fair terms. (Yes, my yuppie-scum E30 grudge has thankfully been defeated.)

Think how often people grab for Shiny New even if the current state is still very usable and enjoyable, and Shiny New isn't that much of an improvement.

And it goes deeper than that.

A lot of us have been trained to venerate the old: we have vintage races, we have concours shows, we have that joy of being slackjawed at Cars & Coffee as we stare down a row of Weber carburetors perched atop hand-machined castings. We have the equivalent of warrior sagas in Fangio chasing fate around the N├╝rburgring and the 300SLR carrying Moss and Jenkins to Valhalla-in-Brescia and #1075 pushed by angels a few hundred feet ahead of that 908 after twenty-four hours and many more.

We like old stuff. It's cool, in that classic echt-hipster definition of cool in how it marks us as somehow enlightened. It's a signifier of intangibles like feel and gratification over chilly rationality. And it's still eminently usable, even if airbags are nice to have.

And they act as a way of showing what has changed, what has been gained and lost.


Even if many of the legends have finally been eclipsed - there are any number of modern sports cars that will run neat well-controlled circles around a 427 Cobra, and old muscle cars are now more cultural signifiers than actual not-like-this-anymore speed machines - there's that understood pure sensibility that goes with the Old that has been processed out from modern machines.

Used to be that Grand Touring machines meant something, were an expert's tool that required skill and sensitivity to use well. Now anyone who holds a license and can cover the bill can get a 650i Xdrive that will swiftly run between Paris and Rome in any conditions without perturbation.

There's not much meaning or satisfaction in that - but is it a fair tradeoff? Do we or should we truly value stability and security over visceral engagement? Turn it around: Would the well-dressed driver of 1966 facing a rainy mountain pass in his Maserati Sebring have had any problems with skipping ahead fifty years to that 650i, with its scarcely credible advances in speed and roadworthiness?

What do we want from the old, anyway? How do we find justification for what often turns out to be troublesome and costly? What's the significance here, other than subjective aesthetic appeal and some tactile gratification and a limiter on a peculiar strain of proto-Marxist technological alienation and the benefits of depreciation?

All of this kind of meshes together as we face up to the idea of autonomous vehicles, which promise to strip away every bit of humanity and art from the act of going from place to place. And that now seems the much more worrisome concern.

I suppose it's human nature to grasp for what has slipped by, to recognize some greatness - or maybe just comfort - in what was normalcy as things churn. A lot of it may be that as a culture we have a nasty habit of backfilling wonderfulness into time gone by, letting slip frustrations about difficulty even getting started on cold mornings and focusing on winding roads and sunsets that may never have existed. And yeah, there are definitely any number and kind of losses along the way.

So still the two paths: find where that past greatness was retained, or work to keep that which came before viable for today. Yes, there is the potential case of simultaneously pursuing both - one daily driver and one vintage toy, and the attendant dual citizenship in each world. Somehow that's an unsatisfactory conclusion. It's not a complete answer.

Maybe there is no complete answer, and maybe we just have to pick our fights and arguments with some discretion and skill. And maybe we have to still stubbornly advocate for what we even still have - those STs and GTIs and 86s and Miatas and even kit cars - and hold the moral ground we even still have, in terms both economic and influential, before it slips further away into a wasteland of autonomous crossovers. You want good simple fun cars? Ask for them. And then buy them. And tell other people to buy them.

And at the same time maybe recognize where there is a shared mentality - like in those base models that do without the excesses. There's plenty to be appreciated about the simple minimal approach, which is much of the point in the first place. Tuning also exists, and it's easier to add a few choice pieces (hmmmm, those Rial wheels aren't too expensive...) to something than strip off what needs to go.

Yes, part of me is already looking forward to what might come after the Jetta. But it won't be that difficult to enjoy driving until then.

Friday, August 12, 2016

In memoriam


Less about wheels and more about writing about wheels:

Of the smallish subset of humans who know (and inevitably have an opinion) about Gawker Media, I am in the distinct minority: I dearly love the place and have been watching the events of the past few months with nothing but dismay. Maybe I came along too late after their peak slash-and-firebomb, apocalyptically misanthropic years to really grasp why people think so ill of Denton and his legions as they still do. Maybe it's because I was just a weird kid from the Midwest and not the kind of gasbag that somehow attracts their kind of necessary puncture. I know I assign an outsize importance to the time I spent at Jalopnik and still feel a kinship with what goes on there even knowing how marginal my existence was (six months at one of the less-loved titles in the network) and how far removed it is from today. I am far from the only one so affected, though.

So over the next few days Gawker Media as an independent entity will cease to exist, being up for auction early next week, and with its demise comes an end to a truly important experiment in the evolution of media. The dangers that Peter Thiel's monomaniacal action represents will have to be unpacked and hopefully countered over time, and I would like to think that someone will see the need for safeguards against this kind of assault on a free (if occasionally obnoxious and antagonistic) press. That this case was even given consideration indicates something worrisome in the waters of American jurisprudence.

Beyond that I fear the loss of what Gawker is in itself as a sort of cultural autoclave, trying to burn layers of fatuousness from places which desperately need it. God knows that's what we tried to do at Jalopnik to and for an industry that still needs it just as much as New York media.

(And which I only rarely managed to do with any skill or style in the midst of just trying to keep up, hammering through a straitjacket three-paragraph template and verging on circulatory-system trauma at least three times a day. I probably shouldn't have been there anyway. I'm too nice, too unwilling to be intrusive and accusatory. Matt had to cajole the hell out of me sometimes to get me in the right mood, and the only real lasting legacy from those exercises was a fit of frustration that tagged Bernie Ecclestone as the billionaire Muppet, which is admittedly still one of my prouder moments. And yeah, there was also the grad school thing.)

All of which will most likely cease to matter in a few hours, depending on how the new corporate adoptive parents choose to treat their wild child. It will be interesting in a kind of postmortem sense to see how everything gets broken apart and redistributed and remade or shut down completely. I fear for the folks at Jalopnik and wonder how on Earth they'd fit in anywhere else, and that extends throughout the network.

At the same time, there have been any number of Gawker alums who have started to remake the broader media world according to Denton's rules, kicking aside niceties and coziness in favor of high-level writing that lays reality bare in any number of older publications that needed it. So maybe that will work out.

I'm just glad I was there for a while, fortunate to be part of something different. The world is less well off for its passing.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Acquiescence


I would like to think that in each battle between ideals and reality that there is always somehow some kind of happy synthesis, some way to gather together everything and frame it just so. I'm sure that could theoretically be one of many answers, given the right chain of coincidences and decisions, but reality is rarely so generous - to me, at least, and I would wager to most other people as well.

Especially with calendar pages turning and a budget being eaten away by everyday life in parallel.

So yeah. It's mine, at least for the next three years. 2016 Volkswagen Jetta S, 1.4 TSI motor, manual transmission.

No, not what I wanted. Of course not, But probably what works best for the current situation. Or that's what I keep telling myself as a defense.

It's a good car, decently direct and lively and usable, acquired in what seems like a really good deal. Volkswagen lease offers are ridiculously generous for some pretty obvious reasons right now. So for the money it was about as good as anything else I could have found, especially considering such necessities as upkeep and usability in potentially harsh coastal weather and so on.

(Yes, I leased it, which is even more out of character for me. I'm almost wondering who actually bought or owns this machine.)

And it's new, which resolved a number of nagging fears in my head whenever I thought about something else. And whenever I thought seriously about something else, a list of mechanical or situational neuroses tended to follow. Miata? Cooling system. RX-7? Apex seals. Audi A4? Terrifying maintenance costs. GTI or WRX? Tuning abuses. Honda? That plus theft. Fox Mustang? Same plus driving on icy roads. 944? Have a seat and clear your schedule. MGB? One big reality check required in every possible way.

Never mind deep-seated uncertainties about twentysomething-plus-year-old suspension bushings and potential crash damage and so on.

Do I even have to go into how it's so much easier to want than to have, to dream about the good stuff without feeling that stomach-tightening sense that something will inevitably go wrong? Especially given my budget ($5000ish) and the fact that whatever I get would be a year-round commuter machine between a couple different campuses in the region?

Both parts of that fed into the ultimate decision. First, getting something even remotely good was likely to just about clear me out; if anything even moderately expensive had to be done on top of the purchase I was in bad shape. And if anything went wrong later on it would not only be financially troublesome but also cause major grief on a professional level.

So yeah, reality. Reality in its dismal dream-grinding functionality now sits in the lot downstairs.

I tried. Drove an MGB which had (more than) a few needs. Tried a well-worn and hail-damaged NA Miata; first thing the seller talked about was how easy it was to put back together after the radiator blew up on the drive to New Jersey from Virginia. Spent I don't even want to know how long scanning ads trying to find something that would work only to find repeated abuses against both cars and the English language.

The Miata issue deserves its own lamentation, just because it seems that Miata sellers are weirder than the norm. Not more crooked, not more difficult, but definitely weirder. Tried to go see a weathered but still promising '95 M Edition while still in Ithaca - and had the seller accuse me of being a scam artist before she hung up on me, which is not how Craigslist usually works. Had another who never returned a number of polite calls. And so on. Probably gave serious effort to at least five, only really got to see the one, and ended up perplexed.

Time and patience ran thin. With Wonderful One starting her new job my ability to do test drives would be severely compromised. Was in for more repairs on the Passat (see "A4," above), wandered the showroom, sales dude mentioned the please-help-us lease offers. Deal done in a few days. Problem solved.

It's not bad for what it is. Excellent ride and handling blend, smooth and torquey motor which returns great fuel economy, pleasant environment even given the basic trim and so-so seats (really need more lumbar support). Gripes? The shifter is traditional front-drive VW in its less-than-machinelike feel, the sound system is super-fussy.

And it's not really what I wanted. But again, that's life.

I tell myself (and Wonderful One seconds) that having something like this frees me up to have a pure project situation, something to have and fix and tune and enjoy without forcing it to endure the indignity of everyday life. Something purely enjoyable and gratifying, right? Which is true, although fulfillment of this possibility is dependent on (again and always) my unexciting budget situation being able to manage it while living up to everything else, including those good-but-still-real lease payments. Something to think about and hope for as things take shape this fall.

But this somehow seems slightly corrupt in its indulgence, in its failure to provide that synthesis from earlier. Going in to this whole process there was the wish for some kind of Grand Unified Solution, one good lovable car that would have worked for everything - the daily drive, the weekend two-lane blast, the trip to Mom's, autocrossing, whatever. But such is an ideal - it ironically requires a certain reality.

And quite honestly maybe I need to put all of that aside for a while anyway. The pursuit of ideals has rarely been nice to me. Holding myself to act in accordance with some esoteric faith has usually caused me to miss out on any number of great whatevers in the course of providing what too often turns out to be a very attenuated and sort of hollow satisfaction.

Maybe I just need a good set of everyday wheels to help manage reality for a while.

I hope so. It's what I've got.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The joy of pure speculation. Or maybe not.


A mental game played through a very frazzled end-of-semester consciousness and a few pints of IPA:

So we all generally know and accept that Apple is working on a (whole) car at this point. We can further guess that they're on the autonomy bandwagon because, well, that's that kind of thing right now, like it or not.

We also know with more certainty that Apple is sitting on an absolutely ridiculous pile of cash which it prefers to keep overseas because of US tax laws.

News item today: Apple and China's largest ride-sharing/car-hailing service, Didi Chuxing, have entered a billion-dollar partnership. (Lest you think that ride-hailing in China is some marginal entity, Didi Chuxung's customer base is about the same size as the population of the United States.)

Among the platitudes about learning more about the Chinese market and effective corporate goodwill, put the three pieces together:

How crazy is it to think that Apple could be planning to use its cash reserves to create a massive fleet of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles specifically to dominate the Chinese (and perhaps in time Indian, and so on) mobility market?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cyclonic patterns


Notes after a test ride of a Suzuki SV650 yesterday:
  • A 40° morning is not the preferred time to be on a motorcycle for the first time in about three years. (Doubly so since that time three years ago was on a Kawasaki Eliminator 125, a baby cruiser with about as much power as a Waring professional bar blender, peddling around a Queens parking lot for my MSF course.) It's not so much that I was cold - that was very manageable - but that my visor would fog up to a thorough and thoroughly unpleasant translucency in about ten seconds if I didn't keep it cracked open. Being on a fairly fast bike (more on that later) with limited visibility is not a good thing.
  • At least I remembered what I was doing. Didn't do anything stupid or painful, didn't drop, only missed one shift, made it around a good eight-mile loop without external drama.
  • Much love to K&H Motorsports in Homer for having a very reasonable test-ride policy and being all-around great guys.
  • This particular machine wore a K&N filter, a Dynojet carb kit, and a Yoshimura pipe. Don't know if that made the throttle as hypersensitive as it was, but something did. Even accounting for an uncalibrated (if very reserved) right hand, response was twitchy as hell and made shifting a bit of a herky-jerk kind of process. Definitely an adaptation situation, but not reassuring early on.
  • Going around corners from a start - think turning right at the stop sign - while being this out of practice felt like trying to go around a corner while jogging and carrying a bowling ball somewhere between my knees. Better to go way wide after making sure that nothing was coming for a mile or so than risk dropping, but still all kinds of awkward dealing with the balance. 
  • Once I got settled in this thing was weirdly comfortable.  After about five minutes we came to a very agreeable sense of positioning - feet on pegs, knees fitting in correctly, wind blast present but not troublesome.
  • Or else I was so busy with everything else that I didn't notice if anything was wrong there. I haven't faced this much sensory overload since at least the kart race. I can totally see how bad things happen sometime, especially for newbs like me: there is just SO MUCH going on all at once coming at you that it's hard to process correctly. Huge sense of motion and exposure, trying to manage a different set of controls, concerns about balance and positioning, watching out for the rest of the world, occasionally looking down to see how fast you're hurtling along some particular piece of road - it's just a lot.
  • Flip side of that is that my massive phobia about having to deal with some clueless Ashley checking text messages in her CR-V or some chemically-impaired redneck or even some otherwise normal dude in an averagemobile who just makes a mistake and is pulling out directly in front of me without seeing me has now been mitigated. It seems manageable. Sure, still a present risk for which one must constantly be watching, but now not as unsettling.
  • Dear God can this thing move. I would be very surprised if I cracked open more than quarter throttle at the absolute most simply to keep it from running away from me. A comfortably manageable 75 to 80 was no problem at all, and there was LOTS more to go. Even beyond the twitchy throttle this was way too much. Would it be better if I tried it again? Maybe, probably. Made me think of what someone once described as the three-session learning curve for club racers who got the chance to drive an old Can-Am car: the first session is all "Oh my GOD how does anyone manage these beasts? That is ridiculous! That is insane! I've never gone that fast!"; second session is more like "Wow, this is still a lot but I think I'm starting to catch up with it and it feels a bit better"; third session is, "okay, yeah...can we get more power somehow?"

But there won't be a second or third session for me on this one, at least anytime soon. All of the above will lead to a very grateful but somewhat regretful phone call to K&H on Monday telling them that I'll pass on this one. $2200 is a ridiculously good price for an SV650, especially one with a bunch of mods I would have wanted to do anyway, but the bike itself is too much right now.

And all of the above also deeply recalibrates my take on motorcycles in general, and makes me wary of a lot of received wisdom - and perhaps illuminates a few things which were between the lines in many cases.

First and most significantly is this idea about starter bikes and outgrowing a bike and a lot of the machismo which goes with the whole scene, which says that starting on something small is only a step towards a Real Motorcycle of serious (if not always well-defined) power and capability. SV650s have always been seen as being right on that border between "starter" and "Real" and well within reason for a capable newb, a decent mid-displacement mid-power machine that is fairly easy to learn, something that (per the script) You Won't Outgrow In A Few Months.

Screw that. This thing, all innocuous and cuddly per most magazine reports, is a ferociously fast and focused piece of machinery that will do 0 to 60 in less than four seconds and run a quarter mile in the twelves. You outgrow an SV like you outgrow a 911 Carrera S - you don't.

Which makes me wonder about this whole "you'll get tired of it and move on" mentality. I'm not sure when motorcycling became infected with the idea that everything must be a stepping stone to something bigger and faster, or how that ties in with the absolute drought of sensible low- to mid-power bikes which are only now starting to be made available here.

And even then...the hipsterrific Ducati Scrambler makes about as much power as the SV, and everyone raves about how perfect that is as a first bike for undertrained fashion victims. Same with the somewhat heavier Triumph Bonneville. I can't speak to how touchy or edgy they are, and hopefully someone had the good sense to put in some heavier flywheels or something, but still - that's a lot of power and capability to be put into inexperienced hands.

The other side of the argument is the lack of street cred granted to smaller bikes: the Honda 300s and 500s, the Kawasaki Ninja 300, and the Yamaha R3 most prominently on the new market, but really anything with single front brake discs and fairly narrow tires and power outputs in the 30 to 40 bhp range. The Yamaha Seca II works here; so does the Honda CB-1, so do a fair number of '80s machines.

Any of these would have been a world better underneath me than the SV, and most of them are now very high on my seriously-consider list. (The Ninja 300 in particular is drawing an inordinate amount of affection from me right now, but wait to see how that focus shifts according to availability and budget and so on.)

Other stuff - bigger, faster, more aggressive - can wait, if it needs to be considered at all.

Seriously: why the inexorable push for everyone to progress towards unearthly degrees of power and speed? Why the constant prodding to get a Real Motorcycle, as if the others aren't real enough?

A lot of this goes back to well-worn arguments about usability and reality. How fast does anyone really go? How does track weaponry like an R1 or a completely over-the-top creation like a Hayabusa interface with a world of jealously-enforced speed limits and blind corners and iffy surfaces and so on?

And for God's sake, what is it in society that gives anyone the idea that a Superbike makes a reasonable first machine? How do you manage a GSX-R1000 coming off of a bicycle? What failure of self-preservation vs. ego allows people to put themselves into these situations?

I'm not arguing that hypermachines shouldn't exist in the first place. That's a completely different argument which I do no believe and which I will not make. Instead I wish the general population emphasis was much more on real-world usability - including a fair bit of speed, to be sure - and, especially, a gradual but decisive defusing of the It Must Be Big thing.

Which actually gets mentioned once in a while, if quietly and sometimes obliquely, by those who know.

Think about those small-displacement sportbikes. Read a few reviews - the one from Motorcycle.com last year works well - about the Ninja 300 and the R3 and the like. Given that the folks running the test have massive amounts of skill and experience and therefore would have every right and reason in the modern paradigm to look down with contempt on these tiddlers, what are they saying? Good Lord, they're fun. They're great in real life. They aren't going to gasp and fall over if you go up a hill. They're easy to manage, and in being so they're that much more enjoyable to both live with and throw around when the mood hits. And maybe they won't outdrag a GT-R, but they'll still get the jump on just about anything that's in the next lane at a stoplight and be more than fast enough to be a joy on a good road without being grating on a commute or a highway drone.

Fun. Joy. Bikers - and too many times the rest of us - get so caught up in the push for ever-faster and ever-more-serious and so on that the pure fun part is marginalized or treated as less relevant. Power has to go up to remain competitive, everything gets designed around managing massive power, the intensity gets cranked up to levels which can be wearying on a day-to-day basis.

And there's the too-rare alternative - call it the Miata mentality - the counterculture which cares less about winning a bench race and all the more about just going out and feeling that pure sense of movement and control and sensual stimulation and gratification in the midst of the everyday.

If you outgrow fun, you need to go back.