Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tribal affiliations

I've gone on record as saying that the Jeep XJ Cherokee is the only SUV I've ever seriously considered owning - which is still true - so I feel compelled to weigh in on the new Liberty replacement bearing that most dignified name which was revealed yesterday.

Disregard the nose for a few minutes. (Seriously, just try. Please.) Like a craft-minded actor, start with intention. The great success of the XJ was that it took the off-road paradigm and made it work splendidly in everyday life while avoiding both excess and compromise. It was a practical box on wheels that could go literally anywhere capable of supporting its not-immodest weight. It was a Land Rover Discovery or Mercedes Geländewagen brought to the masses, a wonderfully functional and unpretentious vehicle that remains one of the great designs of the Eighties, and it enjoyed a well-deserved long production run. It was the perfect evolution of the Jeep ideal and has deservedly eclipsed its large and clumsy predecessor in the popular mindset. Nothing has ever really replaced it.

Photo: Bryce Mullet
It still stands in stark contrast to the less ambitious products from other makers which would gradually evolve into what we now call crossovers. Take the libertarian ruggedness of a proper SUV and domesticate it for suburban desires and you end up with...well, kind of a strange creature that does a lot of things fairly well but does nothing with any kind of greatness.

This is my biggest worry with the new Cherokee. Given that it's allegedly based off the Giulietta/Dart platform, is it going to be capable of real off-road duty in the same way that the XJ was? Will it even try to retain the kind of tool-like honesty and sincerity that goes with the name? Is that even still possible in this market?

On a very superficial level it looks like it's going to line up against such hardcore safarimobiles as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe in the wilds out at the corners of the mall parking lot during Christmas shopping season. The hallmarks are all there: moderate body cladding, posh interior, alloy wheels with M+S tires, trendy silhouette (aft of the front fenders, at least), a distinct sense of domestic normalcy winning out over the kind of focus and intensity that gets Outward Bound alumni up in the morning.

I don't know if these impressions will turn out to be happily wrong, but for now it's not a good vibe. Something to ponder as we get to the styling issue.


First, I'm not totally rejecting the idea out of hand, but having Jeep be a style leader is like having Barbour revamp their line with tech fabrics and annual color adjustments. This was the company that got endless brickbats for changing to (horrors!) square headlights on the Wrangler. The whole point of a Jeep is that it does what few if any other vehicles can do, and it does so without a lot of fuss or cosmetic silliness. The Wrangler is still one of the most amazing and wonderful vehicles available to the public, even though it is still visibly a development of a primitive machine created over seventy years ago.

Yes, I know I'm sort of avoiding the issue, but I need some time here. Really, I somehow feel bad saying this: As much as I appreciate that Jeep is doing something creative and ambitious, that is just one horribly ugly front end.

This is just such an unbelievable case of what and why and huh? Really: This is a Cherokee?

If this is all as it will truly come to pass, I wish they'd retained the Liberty name instead. The XJ was something great in its directness and capability. If a paleface is allowed to say this, it did justice to its namesake people. This is something very, very different, and I don't see it living up to a very noble reputation.

Time will tell. For now, I am sadly unimpressed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ill chill

An ideal environment in more ways than one. Photo: Tesla
I'm glad I'm not forced to take a side in the whole Tesla vs. New York Times gripefest going on right now, because I can definitely see where both sides have their points - and I don't think anyone has done anything at all wrong.

We all know the story by now: NYT's John Broder drove a Model S from Washington DC to Norwich, CT, and back to NYC - and suffered from serious battery-charge issues through most of the drive. When the story ran, Tesla founder and head Elon Musk had a conniption, accusing the Times of faking the story and worse. Many bad vibes remain in the air.

A couple things: No, I don't think that the Times set out to disparage or smear the Model S. They put the car through a fairly normal test and took notes on what happened and what could have been done differently (making it very clear that some better information would have made a difference). Also, I do understand Musk's outrage; even if he's coming off as a bit thin-skinned and snappish, Tesla is his baby and it has to hurt hard to see his efforts, from the car to the Supercharger network, portrayed so negatively.

I really like the Model S. It looks fantastic, it's supposed to be great to drive, it is a massive step forward for electric cars in general. That said, this episode highlights two very important points: First, EVs are still a new technology with some understandable limitations. They will likely improve significantly even in the near future, but for now they're still more or less a work in progress.

Second, and this isn't just about EVs: Driving in winter sucks.
The view from home, Saturday, February 9, 2013
It's more of a case with EVs, to be sure, because the cold plays hell with battery storage. But in general, winter weather and enthusiastic driving do not mix well.

Fine, go turn your favorite parking lot into a donut shop for a while. Past that, you run into all kinds of concerns beyond comfort levels for us wimpy cosmopolitan bourgeois types. (And no, I've never really had a standing need for seat heaters.)

Start with snow. A little bit is okay; it's not a major inconvenience, it's fun to feel things slide a bit at normal speeds, it's a good way to learn some control skills. Get much over half a foot and things start to get difficult in a hurry. One of the most disillusioning and depressing things I've seen in the past few years was an Audi A4 Quattro hopelessly stuck in snow up to its bumpers along 33rd Street, waiting for a pull from a Jeep. All-wheel drive is nice; ground clearance is maybe more important. And if you live your life on two wheels, whether motorized or pedaled, at this point you're probably stoking the fire and pouring a drink and finding a good book because ain't no way you're going out in this. Especially knowing what comes next.

After the snow, inevitably, you deal with ice, and that's when things get nasty. Grip is nonexistent. Surfaces can be very hard to judge. An object in motion tends to stay in motion because the ability to act upon it has just been severely limited or removed entirely. And consider how cars are weighted unevenly, which brings its own dynamic thrills and chills. Rear-engined cars (Raphael's Bug, Mom's old Porsche 912) do okay on snow; on ice, they're the worst.

Then you face the changes that the cold causes independent of precipitation. Tires don't warm up right. Neither does the rest of a car, from recalcitrant starting onward. It can even cause weird changes in the vehicle itself; Dad once said that when it got really cold cold his Saturn SC2 had a totally different set of body-panel rattles than it did during the rest of the year. (He apparently found this oddly endearing.) Corvette owners might understand this.

Photo: Cam Riley

Or at least the Corvette owners that drive their fiberglass missiles in the chill and ice know this, which of course brings up the most blatant point: A lot of really wonderful machines manage winter weather about as well as they do rock trails. I used to have a running list of worst possible snow cars, which tended towards three headings: exotics, especially Italians (Countach, F40, 930); American V8 hot rods (Cobra, early big-block Camaro); and affordable roadsters (Spitfire, Seven, Spiders both Fiat and Alfa Romeo). I eventually stopped contemplating that category when I realized that it basically meant that most of the cars I wanted to own were grossly unsuited to my continuing life in places that had real winters. As noted, this is especially true regarding motorcycles.

Which likely plays into some greater truths about the automotive marketplace as a whole. Not everyone who buys an SUV or crossover does so with considerations about winter driving in mind, but for a lot of folks it's definitely a part of the decision. (If it isn't initially, the friendly salesperson will doubtless be happy to remind the prospective buyer of the advantages of this higher-profit - I mean, higher-capability vehicle.) And the fact that sports cars remain a small cult movement in much of the country may be due in significant part to this as well. (Although maybe the success of the Subaru WRX/STi and Mitsubishi Evo ironically owe something to this.)

Not that a monster lumbering SUV or mallmobile crossover is necessary to handle frozen precipitation. Best snow car I've ever driven without qualification is a 2005 VW Passat sedan with the 1.8 turbo 4 and autobox driving the front wheels and standard Continental WhateverContact tires. (This would be Anna's mom's car, for what it's worth.) Not sure how much more advantage 4Motion would provide, because it has so far proven to be unstoppable. Yes, it's bigger than I'd prefer and kind of boring on an everyday basis, but in snow it is well-balanced and brilliantly effective. And I wonder if the blunt numbness of a lot of older American cars isn't the flip side of creating something that can handle whatever crazy conditions North America cooks up. (Addendum: See also Volvos.)

I guess instead of just succumbing to the dreary lure of a big barge truck derivative, I'd rather spend my time finding common ground between the longing for speed and the realities of snow and ice. The Evo and STi have some potential if not much ground clearance. Water-cooled VWs have their appeal. (Also, earlier A1 platform cars are renowned for having one of the all-time great heater systems, as if almost to compensate for a perennial concern of the air-cooled cars.) And even if they aren't totally invincible, Audi Quattros have their following for a reason.

Maybe it's best to just get what you want and face the consequences as bravely as possible. Sometimes a really good car can surprise you. Right after I trudged past that stuck Audi a few years ago I cheered an NC Miata going by on a plowed but still slick 1st Avenue. And I've heard whispers about how great a 308/328 is on dedicated snow tires.
Then again, maybe that Jeep isn't such a bad idea.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Photo: Wikipedia
So here's the thing: the last week and a half has been occupied by the process of adapting to my new student teaching gig and the corollary early wakeups and big-time effort involved with remembering several dozen names and getting used to what is by any normal understanding a very stressful environment. It's going well for the most part.

Not a whole lot of time to check in on motor news, though. And what thoughts I have about wheels in rare idle times tend to cluster around personal favorites with an eye towards purchase sometime this year, maybe, God help me.

(Something specifically school-related in the works for these parts. Stay tuned.)

A lot will depend on where I'm teaching. If I'm somewhere in the city, commuting remains the province of bicycles at best and subways as a norm. (My current school doesn't even have parking.) If I head out to Nassau or Westchester - a proposition with some appealing elements - I'm back to driving in and out. Or out and in, really, going against the usual commute patterns. Which is good, even if I'm not excited about the proposition of burning that much gas on a regular basis. Same goes with most of the schools around Queens and Brooklyn that lay beyond reasonable biking range.

Lingering uncomfortable thought: Kinda wonder what kind of reaction some or most of my potential rides would get from the staff and students of a modern high school. Does anyone remember a teacher who drive any kind of cool car at all? My first German Lehrer rode a motorcycle, some sort of very normal medium-displacement Japanese cruiserish thing if I remember right. My senior-year physics teacher was a rotund gearhead (we once had a blissful little side conversation about the pros and cons of small-block versus big-block Cobras) although I have no clue what he drove. Our beloved sixth-grade matriarch had a mid-Eighties Trans Am that actually took on a pretty high-class tone in association with her. Past that, nothing sticks out.

I dread thinking that teachers are just somehow supposed to drive modest boring cars, that anything with some panache and implied speed is somehow a violation of a professional code or a misappropriation of a salary drawn from tax rolls. Yes, there's the traditional teacher salary/budget concerns and if someone rolled into the staff parking lot in an MP4-12C that would definitely cause some justified eyebrow raising, but that's not what's really going on here.

There's any number of wonderful, eccentric, affordable choices out there for a math teacher with some mechanical skills and a taste for the unconventional. An average car is right around thirty thousand; using that as a maximum is hardly an impediment to finding and enjoying something glorious. Take twenty percent off if you want and we're still in the midst of plenty or wonderful choices.
Does this make me look weird? Photo: Charlie Kindel
But what's the optics of a situation like that? I really wonder if showing up in something that the straight world sees as "odd" would have any repercussions. What does a good sports car say about its owner - especially in a potentially negative way?

Never mind a motorcycle. Yes, I would completely ride to school given the chance, but even outside some of the logistics (changing out of leathers and into normal clothes before class, etc.) what does that say about a person who is supposed to be a proper and civil example to the youth of America?
There's a geometry lesson in here somewhere. Photo: Martyn
This may all be a non-issue, but it just seems that given the reliably dull choices that far too many teachers make I wonder if there's something both intrinsic and subliminal going on here that I haven't yet discovered. I hope not. I'll have enough other things to consider, from pure finances to pragmatic necessities to the hopeful consent of the significant other. (Actual statement from her perspective: "Yes, I know I said you could get whatever you want, but I really hope that you will pick something that would work for both of us and what we do and what happens if we have to buy something like a food processor and bring it home?" Sigh.)

Something to haunt my thoughts as I work on classroom discipline and lesson plans. Although it probably won't completely overrule the wish factor.