Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Alternative Fuel Revolution

Put yourself in this not-so-hard-to-imagine scenario:

You're driving around in your car powered by the latest technologies. You think you're at the top of the totem pole. Nothing could be better. Then, along comes some upstart alternative energy source for cars. Expensive, hard to work and unproven. Why would anyone switch to something like that?

You might think I'm talking about the current hybrid surge or even the possible implementation of hydrogen cars. I'm not. The upstart fuel is gasoline.

In the early days of motoring, the first quarter of the century, most of the cars in the US were actually electric. Gas-powered cars were noisy, smelled bad and were hard to start. There was resistance to the new power source then, as there is to alternative fuels today. It seems, however, that today we are slowly progressing past the period of apprehension and into acceptance.

But the fight is still going on. Big Oil and many car nuts will stand up for gasoline. They don't think global warming is a big issue, if an issue at all. They want to stay the course, so to speak.

The other side can be just as fervent and ludicrous. The idea that we can simply stop driving gas-powered cars is nonsense. Until mass transit is available to everyone everywhere (which it isn't, not even by a long stretch) the car is going nowhere.

Each side has its point. Environmentalists want clean cars regardless of the cost to driving. Anyone who has ever had to spend more than a few seconds behind the wheel of a "clean" car like the Prius or Insight knows they are nothing more than transit from point A to B. And that is the major problem with alternative fuel cars. They are unbelievably DULL.

I got into cars for one reason: Fun. As a child, I didn't have posters on my bedroom wall of the mechanical workings of vehicles or the aerodynamic information. I had Lambos and Ferraris going fast and smoking tires. The appeal of the car to people who drive sports cars has nothing to do with fuel economy. It's about that youthful draw to the exotic. Before I knew what girls were, cars ruled my thoughts.

That having been said, any responsible driver will be happy to switch away from gasoline if the adrenaline results can be reproduced. But they haven't been. Not even close. And many of the hybrid "poseurs", such as SUVs that slap on an electric engine to get 12 miles to the gallon instead of 10, are making the switch to another energy source look like a 4 ton joke.

If you compare the Mercedes hydrogen concept to some of its other designs (let's pretend the blowfish car doesn't exist) you can see the basic problem.

It isn't difficult to tell which is which. While the concept for the hydrogen car panders to the masses who want something eco-friendly to get them to the next Al Gore lecture, it doesn't address the people who are causing the problems. What about us who love the fast, sporty cars that get bad gas mileage. We're the ones who are pointed out for ruining the environment. The eco-nuts were already driving the most fuel efficient cars on the market, they aren't the problem. We are. Yet no cars pander to us. Who is to blame?

Well, us partly. The fact is that technology like hydrogen fuel will never take off unless it is mainstreamed. It can't become mainstream because we car nuts refuse to buy them. Until the car companies can lay down some money and develop something that gets car nuts to stand behind them, they will have a heck of a time switching to alternative fuels. Maybe that's the idea. Throw down a few million. Make a concept alternative fuel car. Appease the eco-nuts. Then scrap it and say "Sorry. We did our best. Nobody wants one."

I can't comment on the politics of it all. I only know the basic fact. Unless you can make a car that is exciting, car nuts will never spend their hard earned money on it. I want to save the environment, I really do. But I want to do it at 0-60 in 5 seconds, not 5 minutes.

Blast from the Past - 2004 Nissan 350Z Roadster

Not so long ago I was pulling up to the garage where my latest test car awaited. I’d heard all about it for a few years. Launched in 2002, the 350Z was the next in a line of, frankly, disappointing cars. The models before it all suffered from so many problems, there wasn’t a viable reason to buy one. But when the garage door slowly receded into the ceiling and I saw the car sitting under the florescent shop lights, the gleaming silver paint, black cloth top and orange (yes, orange) seats, I discovered the first reason to buy one. This car is gorgeous.

Now many convertibles rely on looks as part of their appeal. None of them succeed like this one. Where the BMW Z4 is hopelessly overdone, the Z is simple and refined. Where the Miata is boring and bland, the Z looks fast just sitting still. Where the S2000 is cute and cuddly, the Z is macho and muscular. Nothing else in its class compares. The big European fender flares and big 18 inch tires give the car a strong, bulldog appearance. It’s almost hard to believe a car this pretty was designed in America.

But while the looks might stun, the performance could kill. Not entirely in a good way, however.
Our dyno tests had shown the cars 3.5 litre engine to put out 290 bhp. Not earth moving numbers, but enough to get the car from 0-60 in just about 6 seconds. The real joy comes from the handling. This car grips the ground like it has claws. After a few hard corners I would have sworn the pavement was starting to ripple. Of course, there are drawbacks as well. If a drop of water, or God forbid and ice, should be on the road…well, let’s just say the car handles less like a jungle cat and more like a duck on a frozen pond.

The version I tested was a 6 speed manual with limited slip, traction control, the whole shebang. That brings me to the next aspect of this car that makes it worth buying. The value. No other car in the class sports so much for so little. The price tag for a new one will be around $35,000. The one I tested was loaded for $38,000.

If you are concerned about fuel economy (and with gas prices on the rise, who isn’t?) you will be glad to know that the Z will not eat your wallet for breakfast. I averaged just over 20 mpg driving gently in the city and well into the 30’s driving on the highway. Be forewarned, the car does get very thirsty when you put the pedal down.

If everything sounds like roses and candy canes so far, that’s because it is. But don’t be fooled, there are downsides to this car. First, the shifter can be finicky. It’s a little stiff and the clutch fights back. The road noise can also cause problems. With our 18 inch wheels there was a significant amount of sound. It was muffled a bit by the enormously throaty exhaust note, the best sound of any car in the class. There is also little in the way of a trunk. With the standard items on board (flashlight, jumper cables, air pump) it can be hard even to fit a week’s worth of groceries in the trunk. When a car comes with a diagram of how to fit your golf clubs in the trunk with the least amount of hassle possible, you know you’re short on space.

Still, if you buy a two-seater roadster, the odds are good that most of the negatives about this car will not affect your decision to buy. They didn’t affect mine. After leaving the test track, having spent a record 4 hours driving the car, I put my name on the list. I had to have one. They’re just that good.

The Charges: This car is accused of being the best-for-your-money car in its class.
The Evidence: A powerful 3.5L V6 putting nearly 300 horses to the pavement. More grip than a professional arm wrestler. Stunning good looks.
The Verdict: GUILTY! This is a seriously good sports car. It has its downsides, but you’ll be too busy loving the drive to care.

Price: $38,000 as tested.
Annual Fuel Cost: $1092
Specs: 0-60 5.9 seconds. Top speed 150mph. 24.5 mpg avg. 3498cc V6. RWD. 290bhp. 274lb ft. 1635kg. 273g/km CO2.

Friday, September 26, 2008


I'm going to begin my review blog with some basic information. I'm sure you're dying to get to know me, as I am you. I should start by saying that I have a bit of a sketchy history of owning cars. I don't make the kind of money that would buy the the cars I'd like, but neither do most of the people who will read this.

I first owned an 89 Honda Prelude. Lovely car. Nothing ever went wrong even over 150k miles. Until it was rear-ended by a truck and folded in half like an omelette.

Next came a 95 Subaru Legacy. AWD has always been a favorite aspect of a car for me. Yet, I managed to crash it in the snow anyways.

After that came a 95 Saturn SC2. Ok, not exactly the fastest car in the world, but it did have style. There were more than a few mechanical problems, but the car held together well. After a minor crash, the headlights no longer popped up. Completely unable to drive at night I searched for yet another car.

Finally, I found my current car. A 2004 Nissan 350Z. I quite like this car. Before you ask, yes I have crashed it. It was nearly totaled on an icy highway just a few months after purchase. It's all better now, the bandages are off.

I also drive a 2003 Honda Accord, which my wife uses. It's quite a nice ride and a great long distance car. However, we bought it used and it has a ... smell.

I do my best to drive all the cars I can when they come out. I'm unable to acquire test cars and my track is the TV Highway just a jump from my house, but my reviews are backed by an insane love of everything vehicular. I am fair. I am unsnobbish. I am wise.

I am the judge.