Thursday, July 28, 2011

Look what I saw...a Lexus LFA and Aston Martin DB9 Volante

Two of my favorite sports cars in the same parking lot...what are the chances?! Well actually, I live across the street from a fancy restaurant with a valet service and correspondingly often see fancy cars - I regularly get to see the finest specimens from Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Porsche, Mercedes AMG, and Aston Martin, new and old. This pairing of the LFA and DB9, though, was practically screaming out for me to take pictures! Click through to see more pictures and a comparison.

The Aston Martin DB9 is unequivocally one of the most beautiful sports cars in the world. I still prefer the smaller Vantage, but the DB9 is close behind.

I wouldn't call the Lexus LFA beautiful, but it surely looks like it was sent here from the future. A crowd gathered as I was taking pictures. Similar to the Radio Shack commercials, men automatically make a beeline to the LFA, which looks like the ultimate gadget - a cutting edge machine you would find at Brookstone or Sharper Image. The wife of one guy said loudly, "I think it's ugly," pointing at the LFA, to which I replied, "I beg to differ." The styling is not everyone's cup of tea, but it sure makes a statement and evokes a reaction - good or bad - from onlookers.

The DB9 was all alone; no one (besides me) even noticed it next to the LFA. The DB9 has been around since 2004 and was featured in Entourage and a couple James Bond movies, so it's a bit overexposed compared to the brand new, super-limited LFA.

Look at the color-coordinated interior - yummy! To be fair, the LFA ($375k) is practically double the price of the DB9 Volante ($190k), so this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. And despite "only" having a V10 compared to the DB9's V12, the LFA is considerably more powerful, with 552hp compared to the DB9's 470. The LFA is also lighter at 3263 lbs., vs. 3880 lbs. for the DB9. Fuel economy is comparable (and terrible) for both cars (around 11/17 city/hwy). The LFA is a true 2-seater, whereas the DB9 has a pair of useless rear seats that make more sense for golf clubs than humans. The LFA will enjoy a very limited production run of only 500 cars, which will make it quite exclusive and rare.

However, if money was not a constraint, which would you choose? The technological wonder or the classic beauty? I'm quite torn...and never thought I'd say this...but I'm leaning toward the spanking new LFA.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My take on the Honda CR-V...past, present, and future

Honda CR-V Concept
If you read any popular car news blogs, you've probably already come across this picture "leaked" by Honda (probably on purpose) a couple days ago. This is the only picture released so far, so we haven't seen the taillights or interior. In a nutshell, I think this "concept" - which, by the way, will probably be ~95% identical to the eventual showroom model - is a huge improvement over the outgoing model, but the grille bothers me. Click through to read my impressions.

Honda Accord Crosstour
The CR-V concept's troubling grille is unfortunately borrowed from the new Crosstour. The Crosstour is probably the most unattractive and disproportionate SUV on the market today, so it pains me to think that Honda is spreading its awkward design cues to adjacent models. The Crosstour's grille is too short and angular, the rump is too big (makes the Panamera look svelte!), the stance is too low, and the price is too high for a vehicle that really can't go off road. The CR-V's more toned-down grille looks slightly better, but still...c'mon Honda!

2006-present CR-V
Let's take a look at the current CR-V. As I mentioned, the new CR-V Concept represents a significant improvement. But first a disclaimer: to any readers who own this car, I do understand why: it is very well constructed, cheap to repair, has excellent resale value, is pleasant to drive, and has ample space. I am not denying these facts at all. However, the design is a mixture of awkward curves and angles that, when combined, look fairly disjointed and convoluted. Let's start with the front end - why is there an extra grille underneath the Honda logo? It looks ridiculous and completely out of proportion. Honda facelifted the front end in 2010, but it did not solve the issue.

2006-present CR-V

Now let's move to the thick D-pillar. Besides providing poor rear visibility, the ovular rear windows look frumpy. I'm not really sure what look Honda was going for - the Jetsons? A mid-90s Ford Taurus? The new CR-V concept thankfully solves this issue with much more attractive Lexus RX-like rear windows. The ribbed plastic body-cladding along the sides, front, and rear of the car help a little bit, but I'm afraid it's not enough. One design feature that does work on this (and all) CR-Vs is the taillight design. The vertically-stacked lights are unique to the CR-V and from afar, give the rear end an almost Volvo-esque look.

2006-present CR-V
The interior of the current CR-V is quite pleasant and, similar to most Hondas, extremely well made. The position and angle of the shifter are not very sporty, but the overall fit and finish is leaps and bounds over the CR-V's American competitors.

2002-2006 CR-V
In contrast with the current CR-V, the previous generation has a fantastic exterior design, through-and-through. The front-end is simple and clean, yet rugged. The triangular-shaped C and D pillars make the car look quite strong, as if it could traverse any kind of terrain (whether or not it actually can!).

2002-2006 CR-V
The interior is also up to Honda's high standards of craftsmanship, but the design looks a bit outdated now (including the print on the cloth seats). Perhaps Honda was aiming for the rugged Land Rover / Jeep effect? If so, it worked.

1995-2001 CR-V
In the mid-90s, SUVs were a novelty; suddenly the Jeep Cherokee had competition from Japan,  namely the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. (Nissan was late to the game with the XTerra, and I would not consider the Suzuki Vitara a formidable competitor.) Compared to the first-gen Toyota RAV4, the original CR-V has held up considerably better. Whereas a mid-90s RAV4 looks squished and stilted, the first-gen CR-V still looks like it is ready to go on a safari. The proportions are excellently well-balanced - not too big, not too small. The front end is modest yet attractive, and from afar (to the untrained eye) this model could be mistaken for a Land Rover Freelander. 

1995-2001 CR-V
The original CR-V's interior is basic, yet functional and attractive. No user manual required to operate any of the switches. And look at that cassette player...nice ;)

The takeaway of this post: the CR-V has always been an steadfast competitor in the small crossover market. I think Honda lost its way in the current (2006-present) model, but the jury's still out on whether the brand new concept will regain the essence that made the original CR-V so unique. Basic is better!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Look what I saw...a 1964 Chevy Impala

1964 Impala

I had the pleasure of seeing this beauty parked on the way to work yesterday. I will not claim to be an authority on 1960s cars, but I certainly appreciate this 1964 Impala. While trying to figure out the year of this car online, I noticed that practically each year in the 1960s, Chevrolet made noticeable tweaks to the headlight and taillight design. This practice of planned obsolescence is exactly the same thing Apple does to its i-products today - by making small, inexpensive changes, models become out of style quickly, making consumers want to buy the latest and greatest to stay in fashion. This practice is much less apparent in the automotive world today because of massive retooling costs and a keen focus on the bottom-line. Car models typically see longer lives today, often lasting 3-7 years. This '64 Impala prompted me to think about Impalas in my lifetime so far (in the last 2 decades), and how relatively unexciting they have been. Click through to see.

1994-1996 Impala SS
After decades of storied history, Chevy stopped selling the Impala in 1985, and then resumed in 1994 with this boat based on the Caprice. I never liked the bloatedness of the Caprice or how the rear wheels were covered. The Buick Roadmaster variant was even worse with wood-paneled siding (how that was ever popular, I will never understand). Chevy made a few slight tweaks to the Caprice, including a Corvette-inspired engine, body-colored cladding, nice wheels, removing the fenders that covered the wheels, and of course, adding the SS badge, and then sold the car as a high-performance Impala model. This model has a huge cult following, but probably more so because of its raw performance and scarcity value, and less so because of its looks.

2000-2005 Impala
After another 4 year gap in production, Chevy released a new Impala, and this time with a more typical engine and mainstream appeal. When it first came out, I was very intrigued by the rear lights, which were reminiscent of 1950 and 1960s models. But the overuse of black plastic (below) cheapened the look in my opinion.

2000-2005 Impala
After virtually no changes to the car in its 6 year run, it became very ubiquitous on the roads. The Impala is one of the last sedans that seats 6 people (3 in the front, 3 in the back), and its ample space has made the Impala popular with families, retirees, police & fire services, rental fleets and taxis. Racing videogame developers often use the 2000 Impala to represent a nondescript traffic car that you must avoid hitting while you speed around in your Ferrari or Porsche. It's not an ugly car, but it's certainly not beautiful or interesting to look at.

2000-2005 Impala interior
 The interior design is a bit awkward, but could be worse. From experience, the seats are very comfortable, and the dashboard - while a bit too curvy for my taste - has all the latest creature comforts.

2006-present Impala
I have fewer nice things to say about the current Impala, which is now way overdue of a redesign. Chevy managed to take the previous model, which was already practically devoid of personality, and make it even more bland. The front end received Chevy's corporate design language which, while works on some cars, is extremely boring on the Impala.

2006-present Impala
Also gone are the rear taillights that reminded me of the cool 1960s models. This rear end HAS to be one of the most boring and irrelevant in modern history. Don't get me wrong, the Impala is still a very competent car and serves police-forces and rental fleets well. The engine is powerful, the car is spacious, and the new interior - while simple - is a significant improvement over the previous model.

2000-2006 Impala interior
However, I cannot understand why anyone would actually be excited to own this car (aside from utility and practicality). The Dodge Charger and Ford Taurus are two cars, for example, that blow the current Impala out of the water, at least in terms of excitement and design refinement. I was surprised to hear that the next Impala isn't due until 2013 (!). Gone are the days when front and rear fascias were swapped every year - a practice that made the 1964 Impala special and unique. 50 years from now, no one will be able to distinguish between a 2006 or 2011 Impala - what a shame.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Living with Our LEAF after Three Months

After living with our LEAF for three months, we continue to be very happy with it, and we are more convinced than ever that a car like the LEAF would fit well in the lives of a great many families.

After over 2,100 miles, I still look forward to driving the LEAF every chance I get.  Its responsive electric motor and low center of gravity make it fun to drive quickly.  And its smooth and quiet drive train make it relaxing to drive conservatively.  The car's varied energy efficiency displays and its ability to regenerate power when going downhill and while braking make the LEAF interesting to drive under any circumstances.  The car is roomy, and we have recently begun using it often to transport our family of four adults and a baby on local trips and out to restaurants.  Everyone fits in the LEAF fine, and the I don't notice any reduction in power with  all five of us aboard.

And as always, the combination of our solar power and Time of Use electrical rates, make it extremely economical to drive the LEAF.  In fact, my most recent billing from Southern California Edison agrees with my projections that because of our solar power system, we'll be able to drive our LEAF all year, at least 12,000 miles, without paying any fuel cost at all.  The magic is that anyone can do this who has a roof or unshaded ground space that is situated appropriately for placing solar panels.  The out-of-pocket upfront costs can even be avoided by leasing the panels.  The lease costs can be lower than the utility bills, and Time of Use rates with an electric car can replace high gasoline costs to the point that the overall cost to the family would be favorable.

Adding "ELECTRIC" to our LEAF
We think that the LEAF is a bit too invisible about being electric.  The car, while having distinctive details, such as the unusual headlights, blends in a bit too well with the crowd.  We want people to know about the new electric cars on the roads and we want people to ask us about them.  To help our LEAF stand out, we've added "ELECTRIC" wording to the rear deck lid, to supplement the cryptic "Zero Emission" logo that comes standard with the car.

We've also added a personalized license plate "WATT UPP" to help the car stand out even more.

So far, my favorite response was from two young men in a Mini that zoomed by me the other evening.  The passenger gave me a thumbs-up and shouted "Watt Up".

"Cars And Coffee"
In mid-June, a few of us from the MyNissanLeaf forum decided to bring our LEAFs to a local car enthusiast gathering called Cars And Coffee.  This gathering is famous among enthusiasts as being one of the largest informal weekly gatherings of car lovers, and one that attracts some very interesting (and expensive) cars on a regular basis.  Though electric cars are not often seen at Cars And Coffee, we were undaunted.  We felt that the LEAF is a very interesting car, as the first mass produced affordable electric car of the modern age, and that it was really appropriate to show the car there.

We got lots of interest in our LEAFs and especially about the car's special features, the driving range and the length of time and the cost to charge.  Most of the people were the "gear heads" that you'd expect to meet at such a gathering.  Yet we found them open and interested in these new electric cars.  Overall, we were glad that we brought our LEAFs to Cars And Coffee, and we felt that we had added some education and interest to the event.

EMS Study
I recently participated in a market research study funded by a Korean company, regarding home energy management devices in households with electric cars.  The study involved completing a weeklong online diary, including uploading photos of our home, our LEAF, our home charging dock and our "TED" home energy management system, and answering some questions about our preferences in using such systems.  After completing the diary, we had a two hour home visit from six members of the market research team, and an American researcher who was their US partner.  I was shown ideas for possible new devices that could be placed in home interiors to inform the homeowners about their energy use and to guide them to conserve energy and costs.  It was fun and interesting to provide my opinions for this project.

Focus Group
I participated in a focus group at an automotive market research firm in Tustin, Ca regarding electric car preferences.  This research was sponsored by an electric car manufacturer which was interested in our opinions about their prototype electric sedan as well as about several innovative options they are considering for selling, delivering and servicing the cars.

Participating in these research activities is a fun and interesting part of being an early participant in the much publicized introduction of electric cars.  Most of us are enthusiastic and happy to share our thoughts with those who are making decisions about future products and the infrastructure to support them.

Charging EVs at Friends' Homes
Because electric cars are relatively new on the roadways and public charging stations are still scarce, one way to provide extended range is for EV owners to help each other by providing charging at each others' homes.  I had the chance to do this recently when a friend who lives 50 miles away in Santa Monica needed to participate in a market research project near my home and she had forgotten to plug her car in the night before.  She had enough "juice" to get to my house, but not enough to get home.  She put out a call for help on our online forum,, and I offered to have her charge at my house.  She drove here and we plugged her car into my 220 volt EVSE in my garage and I drove her to the local research location.  Her car charged while she spent a few hours there, and then I drove her back to pick up her fully charged car for her return trip home.  This is sometimes called "garage surfing", and it is a nice, social way to help friends who have taken the plunge into this new world of mobility.

State of Charge Meter
The LEAF dashboard comes with two displays designed to predict remaining driving range.  One is a numeric "miles remaining" display that is based on calculations of the state of battery charge and how aggressively and over what kind of terrain the LEAF was driven over the previous 30 minutes or so of driving.  The other is a 12 part "fuel gauge" scale that is tied more directly to the battery state of charge.

The problem is that neither of these displays is particularly accurate or precise over its full range.  The numeric display varies so much that the original reading of miles available at full battery charge can almost never be actually attained, and it drops rapidly after just a few miles of driving.  For example, it might show 102 miles of available range at full charge, but after driving five miles, it might show 83 miles of range.  In addition, it changes so much with hilly terrain and freeway speeds that it can't be relied upon to estimate the available miles for a trip.  Using the example of that same 102 miles of projected range at full charge, a realistic range at 65 miles per hour on the freeway might be 70 miles.

The 12 bar display is much less variable, but it has too few gradations to be completely useful.  A reasonable driving range on a full charge might be 84 miles.  So each of the 12 bars might represent 7 miles of available range.  That's fine when you are working with a nearly full battery, but when you are getting down to the last two bars, you are quite interested in whether you have used one mile or six miles of that 11th bar.  That would make the difference between having eight or fourteen miles of range remaining, which could be critical if you are ten miles from home.

So several of the high powered technical minds among the first wave of LEAF buyers, some of them friends of mine, are "hacking" the codes within the CAN bus, the car's communications network, and they have found some codes that seem to correspond to the actual numeric percentage of battery charge.  They are working on building small display meters that can be plugged in to the dashboard of a LEAF and will display an accurate "state of charge".  Despite being very interesting to some of us, this can be a reassuring device to have when your battery is getting low and you are trying to get someplace before needing to charge.  These percentage numbers will still need to be used with some experience in order for the driver to safely predict remaining driving range, but the meters will make those predictions more convenient and accurate.

Quick Charging and Mitsubishi
In addition to the 220 volt "Level 2" charging that most LEAF owners use for charging at home and at public charging stations, the LEAF is also available with an optional "Quick Charge" port that can plug in to a 480 volt DC charging station that can charge the LEAF to 80% full in under 30 minutes.  The charging plug standard used in the LEAF is a standard called "CHAdeMO" that was designed and agreed upon by a group of Japanese car makers and utility companies.  The problem is that these chargers cost tens of thousands of dollars and require major power feeds.  Up until today, none of these chargers has been available to the public on the US west coast, though they are plentiful in Japan.

That changed for the better in the last two weeks when Mitsubishi Co. installed a solar powered CHAdeMO charger at their headquarters in Cypress, California, 20 miles from my home in Orange County.  Mitsubishi makes an EV called the iMiev that has been sold in Japan and Europe and has been in test fleets in the US for over a year.  The car will be introduced in a revised form for the US market within the next year, to be called the "Mitsubish i".  Since Mitsubishi is a partner in the CHAdeMO partnership with Nissan and Toyota, as well as Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the new charger works for the LEAF as well.  Reports over the last few days are that the very kind folks at Mitsubishi are willing to allow LEAF owners to charge at their quick charger during business hours, when the charger isn't occupied.  Charging will be free of monetary charge, as far as we know at this time.

This is a real breakthrough for local LEAF drivers.  Most of the LEAFs delivered in the first wave of several thousand in California have the quick charge option, which cost owners $700 in addition to the $1,000 upgrade cost for the better equipped SL model.  (Owners who are part of the "EV Project" received the quick charge option at no cost.)  Without any public quick chargers available, this costly option was of no use.  With at least one CHAdeMO charger available, centrally located between LA and Orange Counties and not far from major freeways, LEAF drivers will now be able to experience fast charging and know what it will be like to be able to travel longer distances with minimal delays for charging.  Quick chargers are also reputed to be planned for installation by the EV Project in San Diego County in the next six months.

One problem that may delay rapid deployment of these chargers is that the SAE, the US automotive standards organization, has not settled on a quick charge plug standard.  It has been widely discussed that US car makers are holding out for a different plug standard that will integrate with the existing J-type Level 2 plug format, making it easier to design a single charging port, rather than the two different plugs that are used in the LEAF.  This lack of agreement may delay decisions on widespread deployment of what will come to be called "Level 3".

Public Charging
Beachside Public Charging at Seal Beach
Thank You, Forward Thinking City Administrators
Here and in Laguna Beach
More and more public Level 2 (220 to 240 volt) charging stations are being introduced in West Coast cities.  Locally, in addition to the ones already available at most Nissan dealers, at LAX international airport, at shopping malls in Santa Monica, Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, stations have been installed and dedicated in the past month in Laguna Beach, Seal Beach and at the Air Quality Management District (AQMD) headquarters in Diamond Bar.  These new charging stations are all from Coulomb  Technologies and are part of the ChargePoint network.  Through another company called ECOtality, a network of charging stations called "Blink" are being installed.  Most of these are in San Diego at this time.  I have a ChargePoint account and barcoded RFID access card and I've enjoyed testing out all of these new charging stations, which have worked very well and easily for me.  Currently, charging at all of these stations is free of monetary charge.  In the future, landlords may decide to set prices for parking or for the electric power used, to help to support the service.

The Numbers:
Month:  June 2011
Total Miles at Month End:  2,173 miles
Miles Driven in Month:  786 miles
Electric Power Used for Charging: 248.6 kWh (measured at wall power source, includes public charging)
Public Charging: 5.3 kWh
Home Charging: 243.3 kWh
Energy Efficiency, Month of June:  3.16 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)
Energy Efficiency, Lifetime:  3.16 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)
Most Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Day in June: 24.1 kWh  (6.5 charging hours)
Least Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day: 2.9 kWh  (0.78 charging hours)
Average Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day:  12.8 kWh  (3.5 charging hours)
Household Power Used:  535.3 kWh (without car charging)
Total Power Used:  792 kWh (includes car charging)
Solar PV Power Generated:  832 kWh
Net Power Used or Sent to Grid:  40 kWh sent to grid
Electric Bill:  -$84.91 (A credit in this amount will be added to our net metering total credit for the year, offsetting future bills for months with lower solar output.)
Cost for Charging Car in June:  $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 June: $31.63)
(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost per Mile in June: $0.04)
Average Miles per Driving Day:  31.5miles
Longest Day's Driving:  62.4 miles
Shortest Day's Driving:  4.7 miles
Number of Times we Took the Prius Instead of the LEAF Due to Low Charge: None
Unexpected Low Charge and Unable to Reach Destination:  Never

Monday, July 18, 2011

I love Zipcar...and the Audi A3

Audi A3 Zipcar
Fun fact about me - I live in the city and do not actually own a car. Instead, I am a faithful Zipcar subscriber, which allows me to drive about 15 different cars whenever I want. Zipcar pays for gas, cleans the cars on regular basis, and repairs the cars as necessary. Each car has its own parking space in a secure area. In many ways, Zipcar allows for more fun, less hassle, and significantly fewer costs than owning a car in the city. I know I sound like a Zipcar commercial, but it's true!

You may have seen a few Zipcars on the road - they are not the typical bland cars you'll find at Hertz or Avis (such as Toyota Corollas, Dodge Avengers, and Chevy Impalas). Instead, among the cars you will find are the BMW 3-Series, Volvo S40, Mini Cooper Convertible, VW Golf, and my personal favorite, the Audi A3.

I love everything about the A3, and I feel that the little sport-hatch doesn't get the attention it deserves. Recently I drove the A3 on a long trip involving a good mix of highway and twisty mountain roads; click through to see my impressions.


I had the pleasure of driving a 2011 A3 TFSI Premium 6-speed S tronic automatic, with front-wheel drive. In other words, the base model (plus a really cool optional panorama moonroof and grey meteor paint). Still, even this base model cost Zipcar a cool $32k based on my estimates. This rental had 20k miles on it and was in great condition, despite being "shared" by so many people. The engine is a smooth 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder with 200 horsepower. This model gets 22/28 mpg city/hwy.

Brand Recognition
The A3 has unexpected scarcity value - you do not see many on the road, so it gets quite a bit of head-turns from car enthusiasts and random onlookers. I think the reason why the A3 is often overlooked is because station wagons are still not perceived to be "cool" in the US (unlike everywhere else in the world). When I mention the A3 to friends who are in the market for a $25-35k entry luxury car, they usually scoff at me. That's a shame, because I wouldn't classify the A3 as a traditional station wagon - it's more of a notchback. It reminds me a lot like the first-gen Subaru Impreza wagon, which had a much more angled trunk than the larger Legacy. The A3 has plenty of space in the trunk for the average person, but has a much sportier side-profile than the more traditional A4 or A6 Avant.

Typically I prefer the European styled door handles you would find on the A4, but the touch of chrome on the top edge of each handle of the A3 makes these traditional ones work well. The headlight fixtures on this base model are not as spiffy as the LED ones on the Premium Plus model, but they are still up to par with Audi's current design language.

The wheels are nice, although plain-jane 5-spokes would look even better...

Ride & Handling
Now that I have driven a number of cars in this price range, I can honestly say the A3 is a blast to drive. As a former second-gen Saab 9000 driver, the TFSI engine has comparatively much less turbo-lag, and when the turbo kicks in, the car blasts off. I know that's a bad comparison, but it's the closest example of a turbo I've driven! The A3's engine is incredibly efficient, and I never felt like I was guzzling gas to make the car go fast (like you might feel driving an S6 Avant). The suspension is responsive but soft over bumps, and the car is nimble in stop-and-go traffic. On a twisty mountain road, the A3 had excellent grip, especially for this front-wheel (non-Quattro) model. Adding AWD would make the grip even more amazing.

The Interior
I realize that the A3's interior pales in comparison to the A4, A6, and A8, but who cares? I think it is awesome in its own right. It feels like a super-premium VW Jetta (in its better days...not the poor craftsmanship of the current model) but with the prestige of the Audi logo on the steering wheel.

The steering wheel controls are simple and convenient, allowing me to flip between Sirius XM radio stations and change the volume without taking my eyes off the road. And yes, the Zipcar comes with satellite radio, which is a godsend for long trips. Once you try it, you will never go back. The perfect reception and lack of commercials is quite pleasurable. The MPH is displayed in a digital display as well as the traditional dials, and the cruise control was very intuitive (once I managed to find the little stick hidden behind the steering wheel). The automatic dual-zone air conditioning is top notch. My favorite feature is the double paned panorama roof, which makes the car airy and bright. When the moonroof is retracted, it is as close as you can feel like you're in a convertible, without actually being in one.

One minor gripe I have to note - after the car sits in the sun for an hour or so, the metallic-covered shifter gets so hot that it will burn your hand. You can see the heat beaming down on it in the picture below...yikes!

The car has S-Line badges everywhere - on the shifter, on the sills, and on the exterior beside the doors. While these badges don't mean that the car has "S" level performance, it adds a touch of prestige to the car. Think of the badging as an equivalent to the Corolla S, AMG package on non-AMG cars, and Sentra SR - the upgrades are cosmetic only.

Door sill
Door panel
Utility / Final Verdict
I take the A3 grocery shopping quite often and find that the trunk and rear seats are perfect for hauling a heavy load. I could probably fit 10 decent-sized bags of food in this car (not that I would ever need to). Could I fit a kayak in the back? Probably not. Could I fit 5 kids in the back? Definitely not. That's where the Q7 would come in handy. But for the average guy (or girl) in the city or suburbs, this car is the perfect blend of fun and functionality. I would buy this car in a heartbeat, but thanks to Zipcar, I don't have to.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Three reasons why I would not buy a 2011 Infiniti

As I go through the current Infiniti lineup, my grievances really boil down to 3 categories:

1) The weird "podium-style" dashboard
2) The fact that each car has a near-identical Nissan counterpart, either as a US or JDM model
3) Disappointing exterior styling compared to competition

I can't comment on the ride, acceleration, braking, etc., as I have not driven any of Infiniti's current cars, but that is not the point of this post. From reading popular auto mags, most reviewers draw the same conclusion anyway: Infinitis produce decent performance, but are either on par with or slightly worse than European competitors. When was the last time you saw an Infiniti win a car comparo? I can't even remember.

Click through to see my explanation.

Reason #1: Podium-style dashboard
Current Infiniti M

Last-gen Infiniti M
The quality of Infiniti's materials is certainly up to par, but there's something very unflattering (in my opinion) about the layout of Infiniti's interiors. Every time I sit in an Infiniti, I can't help but reminisce about sitting in a Nissan Quest, or any other minivan for that matter. Look at the angle of the instrument panel under the clock in the last 2 generations of Infiniti Ms, and compare it to the last 2 generations of Nissan Quests below - it is a very unique angle specific to Nissan, and I can't imagine it is as ergonomic as, say, the traditional vertically-oriented dashboards of the E-Class, 5-Series, or A6. The angle of Infiniti's dashboards was even worse 5-7 years ago - kudos to Nissan for toning it down in recent years - but they clearly have a lot of work left to do.

Current Nissan Quest
Last-gen Nissan Quest
Infiniti's weird dashboard angle also affects just about every other model, including the G, FX, and the now-discontinued Q (see pictures below). The Q was by far the worst offender. The QX escaped the wrath, but has so many other issues to discuss later.

Infiniti G / EX interior
Infiniti FX
Discontinued Infiniti Q - the worst offender!!

Reason #2: Nissan Clones

Infiniti has a checkered past in its efforts to differentiate its clone models from their Nissan counterparts.

Nissan Skyline / Infiniti G
The Infiniti G was sold in Japan and other countries as the Nissan Primera in early years, and now as the Skyline. As a car enthusiast, this practice cheapens the prestige of the Infiniti brand. Not every US car buyer knows this (and many do not care), so Infiniti is able to sell cars. Think about it - Mercedes are sold as Mercedes everywhere, and same goes for BMW, Audi, Cadillac, etc. The 3 Japanese luxury brands (Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus) came to the US in the early 1990s to try to establish themselves as legitimate luxury competitors, but are still sold under the non-luxury brands (Honda, Nissan, and Toyota) in other countries. Would the Infiniti G37 sell as well in the US as a Nissan Skyline? Definitely not. Buyers pay more for the Infiniti brand. I will not be fooled into paying a premium price for an Infiniti that is sold as a Nissan elsewhere!

Nissan Fuga / Infiniti M
The Nissan Fuga / Infiniti M has the same problem as the G, in terms of rebadging a car in the US that is sold as a Nissan in Japan.

Nissan Patrol / Infiniti QX
Funny how the Nissan variant looks (slightly) better than QX. Simple is always better, Nissan! Also, not shown here, the previous-gen QX56 was an exact replica of the short-lived Nissan Armada, both of which were sold in the US market. In my eyes, that dynamic had a terrible effect on the cachet of the original QX56.

Infiniti I / Nissan Maxima
I know the focus of this post is current Infinitis, but I need to mention the I35, which is fortunately not in production anymore. I despise this car. It was a lightly disguised Nissan Maxima (another car whose existence I do not understand), but made more unattractive by fussy styling - interior and exterior. At least the Infiniti J30 had a distinctive look (even though it is not everyone's cup of tea).

Infiniti QX4 / Nissan Pathfinder
I also have to mention this old "gem", also fortunately no longer in production. Nissan affixed a slightly modified front-end on the Pathfinder, swapped the logos, and put 3-spoke wheels on the car, and US buyers actually paid a premium for the QX4! Unbelievable. Say what you will about the Lexus RX, at least it did not resemble anything similar in Toyota's lineup.

Reason #3: Uncompetitive Styling

Infiniti EX
When I saw the Infiniti EX in pictures for the first time, I thought they were targeting the Tiguan / GLK / Q5 / X3 market, but when I saw the car in person, it looked more like a station-wagon version of the Infiniti G. The black molding running around the entire car doesn't work well - I think they were going for the Volvo XC70 / Audi Allroad look, but the EX falls short and looks cheap. Otherwise, the car doesn't look bad - I like the FX-inspired taillights and the G-inspired front end. What a shame.

Infiniti QX
See my post about portholes - they ruin this car, and only belong on Buicks. The proportions of the car are also way off - the front end looks distorted, the sides are too slabby, and the rear end is droopy and blobby. Who in their right mind would buy this over the abundant large-SUV competition (Mercedes GL, Jeep SRT8, Escalade ESV, Lexus LX, Toyota Land Cruiser)?

Infiniti FX
Generally speaking, I think the FX is one of Infiniti's brighter spots. When it first came out, it was very unique-looking and had a distinct exhaust tone. But there are a couple pitfalls I want to point out in the latest redesign: first, the air vents on the sides are gaudy and unnecessary (again, see my air vent post - Infiniti is a repeat offender!). The headlight arrangement is also quite odd - I almost like it, but the proportions are a tad awkward. It's missing something, but I don't know what!

Infiniti M
I really dislike the rear-end of the M. It is exceedingly uncompetitive compared to European and even American competition. The trunk line resembles the Suzuki Kizashi (not flattering!). I like the character lines on the sides, but don't love them. I can't tell if the side profile resembles a Maserati Quattroporte or a last-gen Buick LaCrosse...but I'm leaning toward the latter. And we've already talked about the interior...

Infiniti G37
This leaves us with the G37. I think the styling has actually improved with each iteration - the current version is quite muscular and attractive. Plus, the exhaust note is pleasantly distinctive. However, I have to compare this to the C-Class coupe and sedan, A4/A5, CTS coupe and sedan, and 3-Series coupe and sedan, and conclude that the G37 styling is not compelling enough to win my $40k. To be fair, I do believe the G37's styling is more appealing than the IS and TSX, but that's not saying much.