Saturday, December 31, 2011

Update: The Kia Sportage lives up to expectations

Kia Sportage
This week I rented a Kia Sportage from Enterprise, and am happy to report that the high expectations I laid out in my post from a few months ago were met! Furthermore, the Kia was overall better than the Nissan Rogue I recently reviewed. Click through for a quick update.

The styling of the Sportage is, in my opinion, revolutionary in the small crossover segment. It is well-proportioned, well apportioned, and attractive from any angle. I was gutted that the base model I was driving did not have the awesome LED headlights! But more importantly, now I can also comment on how the Sportage drives. I was driving the less powerful 176-hp 4-cylinder engine with AWD transmission, which isn't blistering by any means, but packed enough torque at the right time to make it pleasurable to drive - and more so than the Rogue. A turbocharged version of this engine would admittedly be more of a blast - in scenarios when I needed to speed up quickly, acceleration was "capped" or "limited" by the engine. Engine noise, while nothing to write home about, sounded less of a lawn mower than the Rogue. The AWD system was very surefooted and I never felt nervous driving on slippery winter roads.

The interior of the Sportage is cleverly designed. The radio controls were attractive and easy to operate, and the steering wheel controls were intuitive. There were some hard plastics on the doors and dash that cheapened the look slightly, but it was still much more stylish than the Rogue. The seats were comfortable and adjustable for my long trip. I found it difficult to store my cell phone anywhere other than the cupholders, which was less than ideal, but otherwise the cabin was roomy. One other minor gripe: the emergency brake was positioned too low and impeded upon the space where my left foot was supposed to rest.

After driving the Sportage for 5 days, I can safely announce that I would buy this car if I was in the market for a small crossover (of course, I would get the larger engine and LED headlights). There is no better looking crossover in the segment, and Kia has produced a pretty compelling package for the price point.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Underperforming Billboard Dreams in New Orleans; 2005

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Where does the BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe fit?

BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe
The 6-Series Gran Coupe is BMW's answer to the growing 4-door coupe segment currently led by the Mercedes CLS and Audi A7. It follows its failed previous attempt to enter the segment, the 5-Series GT, a rather bulbous sportback based on the 5-Series sedan. However, I can't help but question the strength of BMW's new 6-Series entry. Click through for my thoughts.

BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe
The original Mercedes CLS was a dramatically sleeker car - inside and out - than the E-Class it was built upon. Similarly, the Audi A7 looks markedly sportier than the more stately Audi A6. However, the 6-Series GC looks like any old BMW sedan. From afar, a non-car-enthusiast could easily mistake the 6 GC for the 5- or 7-Series. The new 6-Series Coupe is much less boaty than over the outgoing model, but it still doesn't really excite me. A 4-door coupe is typically special because of an aggressively sloped roof and rear window, a smaller, sportier cabin, and a wedge-shaped side profile. I think the 6 GC is attractive...I would definitely say more attractive than the already-attractive 5-Series, but something is missing.

Maybe it's the trunk that isn't working for me. There are way too many lips, creases, and bends for my reminds me of the first-gen 7-Series, whose trunk also had a double-chin. The original CLS's trunk was intriguing because of its seamless, simple, graceful curves. The A7, too, has a simple, low-slung rear fascia that is reminiscent of a stealth fighter...the taillights have a futuristic simplicity that reminds me of Lamborghini's latest a Reventon or Aventador. The 6 GC does look lower-slung than the 5-Series, but it doesn't have the same dramatic effect its competitors have. An auto-spoiler would have been a cool effect. The tail lights are quite attractive...but that's about all.

The side profile is attractive, but it looks like the designers simply added a Buick Regal-like hockey stick to the 5-Series design. It's certainly not as transformative as the CLS was from the E-Class. I'm not sure the ornate side airvents are needed - the design may have worked better without them.

The interior is beautiful and certainly up to BMW's standards. The avantgarde curves, while not my cup of tea, are ameliorated by the 2-tone color scheme and abundance of leather shown in this picture. Having not driven or sat in the 6-Series GC, I can only speculate, but if the 6 GC is on par with other BMW models, the gadgets and feature functionality will probably surpass the Mercedes and Audi competitors.

To conclude - I think the BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe will sell better than the 5-Series GT did. The 6 GC is attractive and likely rich with gadgets, but it does not evoke the same emotion that either the CLS or A7 does. And isn't that the whole point of a 4-door coupe?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Eight Months in Our Nissan LEAF, "Winter" Season Electric Costs

[Please click on any post to expand the view to the full size]

We've now spent eight months with our Nissan LEAF as a member of the family, and we're still delighted with it.  We drove fewer miles this month, partly due to a trip out of town in our Prius and partly due to some family health issues that required our presence closer to home, but our LEAF continues to be our primary vehicle for most of our driving.  It fits our family of four adults and a toddler very well, and it gives us a good feeling to know that we're driving on electricity.  We aren't emitting any CO2 or other pollutants into the air, and most of our electricity for driving is supplied by solar energy from the 24 solar panels on our home's roof.

As it always has, our LEAF drives quietly and smoothly, with very good pickup from a stop light due to the instant torque of its electric drive train.  No squeaks or rattles have developed and the car drives just like it did when it was brand new.  All of its components have held up well, and the tire rotation (the sole maintenance required) that we had done at the Nissan dealer last month hasn't affected the LEAF's performance at all.

November marks the second recent month under our utility, SCE's, winter rate schedule.  Two major factors about our household electrical use are different this year compared with last year.  One factor is that we have additional family members living with us temporarily, and the second is that we are charging the LEAF this year.  With both of these additional loads in place we've been using seriously more power than last year, almost 500 kWh more in November.  With temperatures dropping and with daylight hours getting shorter, we used slightly more total power than last month and our solar power system generated about 130 kWh less than last month.  I anticipated that with SCE's winter rates being less favorable to our solar credits and with more power usage, we would see a larger electric "bill" this month (really a charge against our annual net metering tab) that would eat into the $316 credit balance that we had at the end of October.  

Indeed, our "bill" this month is about $92, the largest monthly bill that we've had since our solar power system was installed.  But due to the credits built up in prior months because of our Time of Use rate schedule, we still carry a credit of $224 into the last three months of our net metering year.  Evenly divided, we can still receive bills of about $75 a month for the next three months and end the year with a power bill of zero. That is still possible, but judging by our power usage for the first part of a chilly December, there is a good chance that we'll end the year with a bill of some small amount by the end of February, the last month in our net metering year. Stay tuned for the exciting outcome at the end of February.

The Numbers:
2011 Nissan LEAF SL Placed in Service: March 30, 2011
Month:  November 2011
Total Miles at Month End:  7,171 
Miles Driven in Month:  775 miles
Electric Power Used for Charging in Month: 243.96 kWh (measured at wall power source, includes public charging)
Public Charging in Month, Power Use:
 5.76 kWh 

Charging at Home in Month, Power Use: 238.2 kWh
Energy Efficiency, Month of November 3.18 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)

Total Charging Energy Used, Lifetime: 2,261.1 kWh (Includes public charging)
Energy Efficiency, Lifetime:  3.17 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)
Energy Efficiency, Lifetime:  31.5 kWh/100 mi
Most Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Day in November: 20.71 kWh  (5.6 charging hours, including 1.8 kWh public charging)
Most Electric Energy Used at Home for Charging in a Day in November: 19.3 kWh (5.1 charging hours)
Least Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day: 5.8 kWh  (1.6 charging hours)
Average Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day:  11.3 kWh  (3.1 charging hours)
Household Power Used for Month:  803.8 kWh (without car charging)
Total Power Used for Month:  1,042 kWh (includes car charging)
Solar PV Power Generated for Month:  511 kWh
Net Power Used or Sent to Grid for Month:  531 kWh net used
Electric Bill, So Cal Edison, Schedule TOU-D-TEV:  
$92.33 (A charge in this amount will be added to our net metering total charge for the year.)
Solar Net Metering Year Total Cumulative kWh Used at Month #9:  1,317 kWh (Total of 1,317 kWh net used for the year)

Solar Net Metering Year Total Cumulative Cost at Month #9:  -$224.09 (Total cost is a credit for the net metering year to date due to TOU rates)
Cost for Charging Car in November:  $0.00
Cost per Mile:  $0.00
Cost for Charging Car, Lifetime: $0.00
Cost per Mile, Lifetime: $0.00

(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost for Charging Car in November: $30.97)
(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost per Mile in November: $0.04) 
Average (Mean) Miles per Driving Day in November:  25.8miles

Average (Median) Miles per Driving Day in November:  24 miles
Longest Day's Driving in November:  69 miles
Shortest Day's Driving in November:  1.1 miles
Number of Times we Took the Prius Instead of the LEAF Due to Low Charge: Never
Unexpected Low Charge and Unable to Reach Destination:  Never

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: What is so roguish about the Nissan Rogue?

Nissan Rogue
I recently drove the Nissan Rogue through Avis and was surprisingly underwhelmed. I was bored by the car's bland exterior styling, bargain basement interior styling, and lawn-mower-sounding engine. This crossover is named "Qashqai" in the rest of the world, which would probably confuse buyers in the US, so it's a good thing Nissan renamed the car "Rogue". However, the name Rogue suggests "maverick", or "different", but instead of seeing a new twist on the small crossover, I saw just another scoop of vanilla. Click through for my review.

Nissan Rogue
I understand where the Rogue fits into Nissan's lineup - it is aimed at people looking for a car-based crossover who cannot afford the Murano. Nissan has long needed an SUV to fit into this important, growing segment. Relatively speaking, the X-Terra, Pathfinder, and Armada, all of which are truck-based SUVs, are heavier, have worse gas mileage, and bumpier rides. Suburbanites, soccer moms, and 3-4 person families are the most likely drivers of the Rogue.

Competitively speaking, the Rogue is up against SUVs like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tuscon, Kia Sportage, Chevy Equinox, and Suzuki Grand Vitara. Since I have not driven any of these competitors, I cannot comment on how the Rogue drives on a relative basis, but I can comment on exterior/interior styling and feature functionality. The Kia Sportage is easily the best looking of all, but the CR-V and RAV4 are the 800-pound gorillas in the room; not only are they the sales leaders, but they are also leaders in quality and reliability. The CR-V and RAV4 have storied reputations that go back to the mid-1990s in the US, while the Rogue is a newbie, so lack of brand recognition does not help the Rogue.

Nissan Murano
The Murano's 170hp 2.5 liter 4-cylinder engine was grossly underpowered and uninspiring. It felt and sounded quite similar to the Sentra I drove recently.....and that is because it is practically the same engine (Nissan's trusty QR25DE engine), but on a much heavier car! An optional turbocharged engine would be awesome (although I fully understand that Nissan is constrained to certain price points in this highly competitive segment). Like the Sentra, the Rogue sounds like a lawnmower at full acceleration. At low RPMs the Rogue is very sluggish, and as the car accelerates past 30-40mph there is an uncontrollable rush of acceleration; it is not very satisfying as a driver. The handling is good for a crossover, but did not put a grin on my face.

Nissan Rogue

I never liked the Murano's styling (I thought the front end was too futuristic for its own good, and the rear windows between the C and D pillars were awkwardly shaped), but American consumers have spoken, and the Murano has been a huge hit since its introduction in 2002. The Rogue is styled very similarly to the Murano, but I would argue it is slightly more attractive and less avantgarde. In fact, Infiniti would have been better off adapting the Rogue platform instead of the awkward looking EX, which is more of a G station wagon than baby-FX SUV. However, when all is said and done, nothing about the Rogue's exterior styling raises my pulse, and I think some of its competitors have pumped out more innovative designs. One exterior design component I really like about the Rogue is the rear spoiler, which continues the line of the rear window quite seamlessly. The chrome accents are also very well placed; without them, the Rogue would completely blend into the crowd.

Nissan Rogue interior
The interior of the Rogue is a bleaker experience. Talk about reaching into the corporate parts bin! Having recently driven the Sentra and Altima Hybrid through Zipcar, I immediately felt at home driving the Rogue, and I don't mean that as a compliment. The steering wheel controls, A/C, and radio were very familiar to me; all are intuitively designed, but I didn't feel any spark or passion. If I was to spend $20-25k on an SUV, I would expect a little more excitement. On the positive side, I do like the design of the corporate steering wheel, and the red dashboard lighting is attractive and easy to follow. And granted, the Avis model I drove was not fully loaded and did not have the little navigation system shown above.

My overall impression of the Rogue is lukewarm. As a car enthusiast, I would personally never buy this car, but it is a perfectly competent crossover for people who aren't looking for a lot of pizzazz or performance in their vehicle. Nissan had a chance to make a splash in the US crossover market with this relatively new entry, and instead barely made a ripple.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Test Drive: Mercedes C63 AMG Coupe vs. CLS63 AMG vs. Audi A7

Mercedes CLS63 AMG
I had the opportunity to test drive 3 of my favorite cars at a local dealership today: the Mercedes C63 AMG Coupe, CLS63 AMG, and the Audi A7 (in that order). In short, what a day... Both Mercedes packed serious punch and growled like no other, causing the beautiful Audi A7 to feel relatively sedate in comparison. I was unable to snap photos of the cars given the salesman's apparent lack of time and patience, so I've chosen some impressive stock photos from the trusty site instead. Lots to cover, so click through for my impressions:

Mercedes C63 AMG
1. Mercedes C63 AMG Coupe: There's nothing like spending a Saturday afternoon haggling with an annoying car salesman...but if the prize is to test drive a $70k sports car like the one pictured above, I'd do it any day. The new C63 coupe is priced higher than the competitors - the BMW M3 and Audi S5 are about $10k less expensive - so that may drive away potential buyers. However, the engine sound of this car is AMAZING and is worth the extra dough. Stepping on the gas produces a deep growl like I've never heard before, and it is accompanied by an equally satisfying rush of acceleration. The 6.2 liter V8 is spectacular and provides a muscle car experience in a much more polished package than the traditional American ponies.

The C63's handling is nimble but not as tight as the all-wheel-drive Audis or the magically handling BMW Ms. That being said, the Mercedes is more unpredictable and, therefore, more fun to drive in my opinion. Although Mercedes does not produce a true manual transmission (hard to believe!), I tried out the paddle shifter manual option, and had a blast revving the engine to high RPMs.

The exterior of the car is beautiful and impressive to onlookers. The brutish body kit, spoiler, LED fog lights, dark gray wheels, and black roof are exciting to look at. And I must say: the car looks awesome in white.

Mercedes C63 AMG Interior

The car's interior is excellent to Mercedes' standards, but at this price point a bit disappointing in some regards. I love the core design of the dashboard and was happy that the model I drove had wood interior instead of the typical cold aluminum or carbon fiber trim found in AMG models. However, I didn't notice a meaningful improvement in the way of gadgetry or fit-and-finish compared to a standard C350...and for this kind of money, I expect some higher level of refinement. If Mercedes had completed gutted the car for performance purposes (Porsche 911 GT3 RS-style), I would have understood why, but since that's not the AMG way, I would have expected more than a standard-fare C-Class interior. The front seats were quite comfortable and hugged me around turns, but the rear of the seats were covered in a cheap-looking hard plastic. The rear seats lacked significant headroom and were quite uncomfortable...not meant for long trips.

The entertainment system is perfectly capable, but it lacks the slickness of the BMW iDrive system and its more integrated connectivity with the iPhone. It was hard to believe Mercedes does not sell heads-up display functionality on any of its cars...a feature long available on BMWs and Audis.

The verdict:
Exterior design: 8.5
Engine: 10+
Handling: 8
Interior design: 8
Interior gadgets: 7
Cool-to-be-seen-in: 9
Fun-to-drive: 10+
Overall: 8.5

Mercedes CLS63 AMG
2. Mercedes CLS63 AMG: The second car I tested was the CLS63 AMG, which has long been one of my favorite cars of all time. If I'm being honest, I prefer the exterior design of the first-gen model slightly more than the current model, but both are fantastic. I wish the designers had scaled back the flared rear wheel arches, which remind me of a last-gen Dodge Charger. I also miss the L-shaped front headlights of the last-gen CLS, and the rear end looks a bit more squished than the outgoing model. Finally, in my book, simpler is better, and there are a few unnecessary embellishments on the sides of the car (the fake air vent where the V8 Biturbo logo is, and the odd concavity at the bottom of the doors). Other than that, the designers have kept the low-slung stance and sharply raked C-pillars that made the original CLS so revolutionary.

Despite its 63 moniker, the CLS AMG engine is actually a 5.5 liter biturbo V8. The CLS' engine had a similar grunt as the C63, and was just as adept at acceleration. The handling was fantastic, but as would be expected, the car felt a tad less maneuverable than the smaller and lighter C63.

Mercedes CLS63 AMG Interior
The CLS' interior is really classy - while reminiscent of the E-Class interior (which underpins the CLS), the CLS' interior is much more streamlined. The materials are tasteful - I love the leather on the shifter and the odd shape of the steering wheel. The wood/aluminum accents are well done. I also liked the yellow ambient lighting throughout the cabin (a similar feature on the E-Class). The multi-contoured seats hugged me around turns and even massaged my back. One gripe - the infotainment system, while functional, is exactly like the one found in the C-Class. Mercedes should spend some more time differentiating the CLS from the lower model lines.

Now, I know it is a bit unfair to compare the $110k CLS63 to the $70k C63, but the engines are fairly similar and I believe both cars are aimed at similar people: someone with lots of money looking for a loud engine and godlike acceleration. Of course, for someone with a family, the C63 coupe is way too small given the almost unusable backseats, and the ever-so-slightly cheaper C63 sedan would be a better fit. However, the fit-and-finish of the CLS is far above that of the C, which is large driver of the $30k price differential.

The verdict:
Exterior design: 9.5
Engine: 10+
Handling: 7.5
Interior design: 9
Interior gadgets: 7
Cool-to-be-seen-in: 10
Fun-to-drive: 9
Overall: 9

Audi A7
3. Audi A7: The third car I drove was the Audi A7, which is the Mercedes CLS' closest direct competitor. The A7 has been getting a lot of buzz recently, and was recently named the Automobile of the Year by Automobile Magazine. There is a lot to like about the A7, which looks more impressive in person than in pictures. From the front, the A7 looks like any other Audi on the road, and could easily be mistaken for an A4, A5, A6, or A8. However, the A7 has a very long side profile and a beautifully sloped back end that executes the sportback vision much more gracefully than the Porsche Panamera. The A7 has a retractable rear spoiler, an awesome feature usually found on 6- and 7-digit supercars like the SLS, LFA, MP4-12, Gallardo, and Veyron. Overall design-wise, the A7 is much more subtle than both generations of the CLS, which have more impactful visual effects that hit onlookers like a ton of bricks. I wish Audi had pumped up the volume a little more here. Functionally-speaking, the sportback design provides much more cargo room than the CLS, as the entire rear window is on a hinge. I also love the LED-lit door handles, a feature the Mercedes didn't have.

The A7's engine is a 3.0 liter 310-hp supercharged V6, which the automotive community holds in high regards for managing to juggle performance and fuel economy. On a standalone basis, I agree that the engine is fantastic. However, having just driven the two loud, brash Mercedes muscle cars, I could not help but feel underwhelmed driving the A7. I know I'm comparing apples and oranges, and when the S7 comes out next year, it will be a much better comparison to the CLS63 AMG. I also know that the A7 attempts to achieve a different purpose than both Mercedes I drove; the A7 is, first and foremost, a smooth, quiet executive car. But chances are that someone that can afford the A7 can also afford the C63 or E63 AMG or an M5, and by golly, if I'm spending that much money, I want a little more excitement! I didn't have a strong driver connection with the A7...the lack of engine noise, relatively tame acceleration and, endless grip from the AWD drivetrain took the fun out of the test drive for me.

Audi A7 Interior
The interior has its high and low points. The wood grain is beautiful and the contours of the dashboard are intriguing; they remind me of the spaceship characteristics of the last-gen 5-Series. The infotainment system stows away in James Bond fashion (sure to impress the ladies). The seats are very ergonomic, and while they do not "hug" me like the CLS, the lower performance of this car does not require such functionality. The user interface of the infotainment system was superior to Mercedes', and there was a little screen between the speedometer and tachometer that displayed night vision. Navigation and speed was also shown on heads-up display (this is an awesome feature that once you try, you will never want to look at an analog gauge ever again!)

My biggest problem with the interior is how many parts are shared with lower models, including the A3 which, as you may recall, I've driven through Zipcar and instantly fell in love. The little buttons on the steering wheel were identical to the A3, and I saw many other switches and knobs that revealed Audi's "trips to the corporate parts bin". On principle alone, for a car almost 3 times as expensive, I don't want to see anything in the A7 that I can see in the A3, no matter how good it is.

If I had driven the A7 before I drove the AMGs, I may have had a more positive review, but unfortunately, my experience with the A7 was underwhelming. Go ahead, call me spoiled. To be fair, I can't wait to drive the S7 when it comes out - if it elicits more driven emotion than the A7, it could give some serious competition to the CLS63.

The verdict:
Exterior design: 9.5

Engine: 7
Handling: 9
Interior design: 8.5
Interior gadgets: 9
Cool-to-be-seen-in: 10
Fun-to-drive: 7
Overall: 8

Saturday, December 3, 2011

keep thinking about the

fictionally adapted

parallel to equate with

heaven the 4 months

arriving at your house

in a white t shirt, operating

circular saws, climbing

ladders, cigaret smoking

sweating, lifting, sweeping -

and most of all, sufficing

that was it and at

"the end of the day"

a fine new corner

done right I say -