Seven Days: Vermont Car Blog

Free Wheelin'

March 18, 2009

End of the Road?

In December, GM and Chrysler each took loans from the federal government to keep their companies out of bankruptcy. Will history show the money was well spent, or will it be as many feared — “good money after bad?” We’ll soon find out.

In exchange for the loans, and in order to receive any additional aid, these companies were required to develop and submit plans outlining their future potential. Viability plans submitted in February are now facing in-depth scrutiny. So, are the plans good enough? And who gets to decide?

Instead of appointing a single “Car Czar” as many had anticipated, President Obama appointed a 20-member Auto Industry Task Force. The Washington Post reports that one of the key members is Steven Rattner, an auto-industry outsider who has “built a long, lucrative career on his chameleon-like talent to adapt to the situation at hand, to understand complex problems quickly and to display keen, level-headed judgment.” In recent weeks, Rattner and others have been traveling the country, grilling auto executives, labor representatives and supply chain manufacturers. Their job is to decide by March 31 if and how the automakers can survive, and what the ramifications would be if they did not.

Republican leaders favor allowing automakers to file bankruptcy, arguing that would allow a quicker turn around of remaining assets. Senator John McCain said on Fox News last Sunday, “The best thing that could probably happen to General Motors, in my view, is they go into Chapter 11.” But the bankruptcy of a major American automaker would cascade throughout the auto industry, likely leading to many additional bankruptcies. The decision certainly won’t be an easy one.

What of the auto-parts suppliers in this mess? With their fates linked to those of the powerful manufacturers, suppliers are in equally dire straits. Approximately 700,000 Americans work at 5000 businesses, making all the parts that become an automobile. The auto industry is incredibly interwoven, and the suppliers are organized in tiers: A third-tier company supplies raw materials to a second-tier company, which refines them and hands them off to a first-tier that manufactures the finished part.
Suppliers that provide parts to GM are also likely to provide parts to other manufacturers such as Ford or Toyota. If one company fails, the effect can cascade up and down the food chain. Market Watch reported that when Toyota’s John Lentz got his chance to speak with the Task Force, he said, “The biggest challenge we face is really on the supplier side.” He told them as many as 100 companies that provide auto parts to Toyota in the United States are struggling to survive. It is a veritable house of cards.

One of the key factors that has crippled the U.S. auto industry is the cost of labor, especially in comparison to its foreign counterparts. Though American manufacturers have been trying to reduce costs for years, strong labor unions have resisted giving up hard-won pay and benefits. But at this point the unions have a choice: to make a deal or lose everything. Concessions are beginning to appear.
Ford is in slightly better shape than are Chrysler and GM, though it also needs to make dramatic changes in its business model to become profitable. As reported in the New York Times, Ford recently announced an agreement with the United Auto Workers (UAW) that will allow the company to reduce employees’ average hourly rate, including benefits, from more than $60 to $55 an hour. This will save Ford more than $500 million a year, and moves wages closer to the rate — about $49 per hour — that Toyota and Honda have been paying in their U.S. plants.

What else are manufacturers doing to save their companies? GM is eliminating 47,000 jobs, cutting executive pay and discontinuing or selling off brands such as Saturn, Saab and Hummer. Chrysler is cutting 35,000 jobs and eliminating slow-moving models, and has sold $1 billion in assets — including land in the U.S. and an engine plant in Brazil, according to Chrysler Vice Chairman and President Tom Lasorda.

Is there any good news? Recently Fiat has offered to take a 35 percent share in Chrysler. Fiat would get access to U.S.-based manufacturing and markets, while Chrysler would benefit from Fiat’s experience building smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. Some say Chrysler has to make this deal because it has cut so many positions that it no longer has the critical engineering staff to make next-generation vehicles. Fiat announced this week that it had perfected a new engine technology called Multiair, which uses a hydraulic system to vary valve action. The result is a carbon-emissions reduction of 10 to 20 percent and a 60 percent reduction of other pollutants, while delivering a 10 percent increase in performance. That’s the kind of technology Chrysler needs.

While Chrysler’s hope lies in partnering with an outside entity, GM’s is with an internal project — ironically, an electric car. The documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? detailed GM’s launch, and then infamous discontinuation, of the first widely used electric vehicle, the GM EV1. That car was created because California mandated it; it was subsequently killed by pressure from oil companies and the Bush administration. Now GM is hoping to stake its future on a new electric vehicle, the Chevy Volt, which will be available in 2010. Members of the Auto Industry Task Force took demo models out for a spin during their visit to Detroit.

The future of millions of jobs and a mammoth industry rests with this hand-picked group. The clock is ticking while they make decisions about reshaping, revitalizing or recycling big players such as GM and Chrysler. I, for one, hope they’re approaching a crossroads and not a dead end.

February 25, 2009

Quarter Mile Quintin’s

Pete and Tim Quintin are brothers who share a passion for drag racing. The inspiration and camaraderie they find at the race track is also in evidence at their family-owned business, Quintin Brothers Auto & Performance in Williston. I caught up with the two of them last week to talk shop.

Quintin1 BOB KILPATRICK: How long have you guys been working together?
TIM QUINTIN: We’ve been running this business for 10 years. Long before that our dad owned a gas station, when we were kids on North Avenue. He owned that through the ’80s. We all worked there, my mom, everybody.
PETE QUINTIN: We still have the original sign out in the shop.
TQ: Then we went to the dealerships. We both worked at Chrysler-Plymouth and Goss Dodge. We did that for years.

BK: What led you to open Quintin Brothers?

TQ: We drag race. That’s what we do on the weekend. So we always worked on performance cars. We got tired of working on the same stuff everyday and decided we wanted to do something different.
PQ: It ended up we were busier at home than we were at work.

BK: Have you seen positive or negative effects due to  the economic downturn? How is it affecting your business?
PQ: Our regular customers are fixing their daily drivers. The cars they were going to junk or get rid of, they’re putting some money into them and just keeping them. We do have some guys who are taking their money out of stocks, their 401(k), and instead of losing it they’re putting it into classic cars.
TQ: We do everything from regular service, like oil changes and brake jobs, to full restoration. Right now we’re doing a ’70 Challenger and it has all matching numbers [original parts]. We look in the registry to see what’s out there, and that’s one of only 20 registered that’s left. The first thing you do when you find one of these [collectible cars] is register it. It just makes it worth that much more money.

BK: The performance technology in your shop is very diversified. What do you guys do that no one else does?

TQ: We have a chassis-dyno, that’s our big thing. We were the first shop in Vermont to have one. A chassis-dyno is basically a bed with 7000-pound rollers that imitates the street. You get the car up there and strap it down. It’s computerized and tells you horsepower, torque, speed, air-fuel [mixture]. You let the car run and tune it from there. We custom burn our own computer chips. We did it for years by mail and it’s hard, because you get a car up on the dyno and you want to tune it then. If the chip’s not right, you’ve got to wait for the mail to come. We said, we’re just going to do it ourselves. It works much better.

Quintin2 BK: Seeing you guys working together with the younger guys in the shop, and hearing the banter, I’m reminded of [reality TV show] “Orange County Choppers.”
PQ: It could almost be the same thing some days.
TQ: We’ve had more than one customer who has said, “You guys should start a TV show.”
PQ: If you taped them out there, you’d have to censor quite a bit of it, but you’d laugh like hell. My son, Chris, he likes the business, and when he does a job he likes everything perfect. Mike is the guy that marks every bolt he tightens. He double-checks everything. If you give him a job, you are guaranteed that everything is tight.
Brady is our floater. He’s supposed to be here in the office, but he hates to sit here. He’s really smart on the computer, but he wants to get his hands dirty. He used to work at Napa auto parts. They came in here to show us a new program, and I know nothing about computers. As a joke I said, I’m just going to hire him. We all laughed, but a week later we did hire him. He started here, and he was twice as smart as we thought he was. We’ve got programs nobody else has. We can put a supercharger on a Mustang and he’s got the program to start it right up.

BK: How has your relationship evolved over the years?
TQ: We haven’t killed each other yet.
PQ: Our dad sometimes still says, “Do I have to separate you two?” With me and Tim, it’s like we’re married. If we have a problem, we scream at each other and I go off here and he goes out there and we don’t talk to each other for part of the day. And then we’re done and everything’s good again.
TQ: It’s pretty much a family thing we’ve got going on. It works out pretty good.

February 19, 2009

Off-Road Entrepreneur

4x4_center The 4x4 Center in South Burlington repairs all manner of 4x4s and SUVs and specializes in the restoration of British Land Rovers. It also operates a unique training program where civilian and military drivers can hone their off-road driving skills. I met with owner Mike Hopwood recently to find out what keeps them motoring along.

BOB KILPATRICK: You guys have a wide portfolio of offerings here. Let’s start with the backbone of the operation, your service business. 
MIKE HOPWOOD: Basically, the ratio of our business is 25 percent restoration and 75 percent regular service and repairs. We fix everything. We install transmissions and motors. We do oil changes and brake jobs, the whole nine yards. If it’s on an SUV, we fix it. We have factory-trained techs and the right equipment to do it.

BK: What advice would you give to SUV owners to keep their vehicles in good working condition over the long haul?

MH: Stick with the scheduled service maintenance. Do not ignore check-engine lights. A lot of people are under the misconception that, “Oh, the light is just on again.” Well, it means something and it needs to get checked out. Go to a quality shop, even for your oil change. Because an oil change is an opportunity for a shop to have a quick look over and say, “Yep, you’re good.” If you bring your truck or SUV to a quick lube, all they’re going to do is drop the oil, slam some more oil in it and ship you out the door. That’s a missed opportunity to have the whole vehicle quickly looked at. A small problem will turn in to a big problem and cost you twice as much if it’s left.

BK: Why the focus on Land Rover?

MH: Well, we don’t just do Land Rovers. We fix all kinds of trucks, crossovers and SUVs. We specialize in Land Rovers because that’s what I grew up with. I was originally born in England and I grew up in Worcestershire. There they are as common as Chevys are over here. So that’s what I’ve loved since I was a little kid. As far as using them for our driving school, there are really just a few vehicles that could do the job. Land Rover is one of the few that will take that abuse on a daily basis.

BK: To an American who has less familiarity, what makes a Land Rover special?

MH: I think it’s a combination of durability and ability. It’s a special vehicle. They drive like nothing else. When you’re driving one, no other vehicle in the SUV world compares. When you physically get behind the wheel of a Land Rover, it makes you feel pretty special. It makes you feel secure and it does a lot of the hard work for you.

BK: Tell me about the different driver-training programs you have.
MH: By far the majority of our work is for the military. We also do corporate entertainment. Groups looking for an outdoor experience that involves vehicles. We train private individuals for whatever reason; maybe they’re going on safari to Africa. Maybe they’re just looking for a unique experience. We do a lot of work for Michelin Tires. We train people from all over the country in all aspects of their light-truck range. Michelin Tires owns B.F. Goodrich and Uniroyal. We teach their sales people how these tires perform off-road, on-road and how the various features balance the tires’ abilities.

BK: With the military training do you get into security and tactical driving?
MH: We typically do not address higher-speed driving. We’re not ramming and we’re not sliding vehicles around. What we’re doing is teaching them all aspects of recovery and traction. So no matter where they are in the world, they understand what it takes to get the ultimate traction to get where they need to go. On recovery, if one sedan goes off the road and all you’ve got is another sedan, how do you use one to the best advantage to recover the other? You don’t have a big heavy truck with a winch, so how are you going to do it?

BK: Do you have a local training facility?
MH: We do a lot of training at the Bolton Ski Area. It’s great terrain and it’s really close to the airport. We take over the Timberline Lodge for the duration of the summer. As soon as it’s done being a ski lodge, it becomes an off-road classroom. We have offices and a conference room, all of the facilities that we need. This summer we are scheduled to do 70 days of training.

BK: Tell me about the art of vehicle restoration.
MH: Restoration is a really tricky thing to do because no two jobs are ever the same. Customers’ expectations are always extremely high. It’s very difficult to keep budgets in check. Over the years we’ve become better and better at meeting and exceeding customers expectations by managing the projects properly. We have awesome techs who know what they’re doing, and we also have a huge library and history of past projects that we can draw on and try to pinpoint costs and potential problems before they occur.

BK: Why should vehicle owners consider the 4x4 Center versus another shop?

MH: We’re interested in quality. I’m not going to pretend that you can’t find a place to get the job done cheaper somewhere else, but what leaves here is going to be top-quality work.

February 12, 2009

Four-Wheel Freedom

Burlington’s Good News Garage has generated plenty of press. The nonprofit that provides recycled cars to low-income families has been featured everywhere from NPR to “The Today Show.” Has the current economic crisis slowed the pace of donations? I met with Director Michael Muzzy at the office-garage on North Winooski Avenue to find out how things are going.

Autofinder-021109 BOB KILPATRICK: How long has Good News Garage been around?

MICHAEL MUZZY: Since 1996. Hal Colston had the original idea and worked with Jon Van Zandt in donated space down at the bus garage. I think the year after that they moved to King Street. We were there until about ’02, when we moved here to North Winooski Ave.

BK: How long have you been with the organization?
MM: Since 1998. Prior to working here I had been an ASE-certified mechanic for 18 years working at dealerships. I basically burned out on the for-profit automotive world. It’s competitive and sales driven. The older I got, the less it fit my needs.

BK: The for-profit world wasn’t working for you. What about the nonprofit world does?
MM: It has less to do with automobiles than with my heart. This is in alignment with how I want to spend my time and energy. Being helpful versus generating income. What I get to do here is utilize my automotive background in a way that directly, tangibly, helps the people that we work with.

BK: What does it mean for a Vermont family not to have a car?
MM: Without a car, especially in rural Vermont, your employment options are limited to where you can walk. Medical appointments, day care, taking the kids to see their grandparents — these logistical problems are multiplied immensely without access to your own transportation. We say, “Donate a car, change a life.” Once that car is part of the equation, employment options are expanded.
It’s a Catch-22: “I don’t have enough money to buy a car or fix the one rusting in my yard, but I can’t get to a job to get the money.” Hal [Colston] used to say, “Nobody wakes up and chooses to be poor.” It’s really true. A lot of young single moms are clients. Particularly when you’re working with them day-to-day, you get to really know the person. These women are some of the hardest-working people that I’ve ever met. They just plain do what it takes for their family — to get their family to a place where the kids have their basic needs met, can have fun, and can see their relatives.

BK: What is the biggest challenge currently for Good News Garage?
MM: We are getting more referrals. There have always been more people needing transportation than we have vehicles available for. We have people calling us on a daily basis with pretty dire circumstances. Certainly the challenges are driven by the economic situation. People are hanging on to their cars longer. The volume of repairs that are needed when [donated cars] come in the door is higher. So our repair costs are climbing.
What’s amazing is that the volume of donations has remained steady or even grown. We are looking for cash donations to offset the rising repair costs, and certainly need to keep the donated cars coming in. The cars that don’t make the cut for program cars we sell at auction. Cars that aren’t appropriate for a low-income family, like big SUVs or luxury cars, we sell outright. All that money comes back to fund the program. We are a 501c3, obviously, and self-sufficient. We’re owned by Lutheran Social Services, but in terms of the bottom line, we live and die based on our own resources and operation.

BK: Your clients often have issues they need to work out to get themselves back on their feet. Do you offer financial counseling or similar services to help them with that process?
MM: Our Ready To Go program provides rides to low-income Vermonters and is specifically centered around helping people transition from state assistance to independence. We provide rides for individuals that are going to an employment-training program, have an employment offer, or need to get to an existing job. That’s what the ride service is all about: providing that bridge so they can get going, start addressing their issues, and eventually move off the ride service into their own transportation. We coordinate with public transportation so we aren’t duplicating what’s already available in the community.
You asked about financial counseling — we do work with Opportunities Credit Union. As a nonprofit credit union, that’s their mission: working with Vermonters to improve their standard of living. It’s all about developing credit, developing an asset base, and developing financial literacy skills. The agencies we work with — usually the Agency of Human Services Reach Up program — their case managers are working with the families to provide that piece. And Hal Colston’s NeighborKeepers program — we work with them, and they’re all about life-skills literacy. How do you get along in the employment world, coming from the low-income culture and moving into the employment culture? It’s all about skills development. And the piece that we provide is the hardware, the transportation hardware.

BK: Last spring you started getting the word out that you would accept just about any vehicle, regardless of condition. Are you going to continue operating with those parameters?
MM: I can’t tell you how many times I talked to someone, and they said, “I would have given you my car, but it was 11 years old.” There’s a pervasive belief that a car has to be 10 years old or newer. That is not true. We depend on a wide variety of donations to operate the program. Any donation has possibility here.

If you’d like to learn more about Good News Garage — or, even better, make a donation — call 1-877-Give-Auto or visit www.goodnewsgarage.org.

January 28, 2009

Driving On The Edge

Team_oneil_rally1 With a full class of 12 students of varying backgrounds and skill levels, I recently attended a four-day driving course at the 12-year old Team O’Neil Rally School & Car Control Center in Dalton, New Hampshire. Rally driving is an extreme motor sport where cars race on limited-traction surfaces such as dirt, snow and ice. Combining a curriculum of classroom work and hands-on driving, the school’s mission is to teach people — novice to expert — driving skills that include skid control, accident avoidance and vehicle dynamics.
My goal was to learn the skills required to compete in local rally events. By the end of the week I was executing high-speed turns on snow-covered roads like a champ. While in Dalton, I had the opportunity to sit down with the man who started it all, Tim O’Neil, 49, a five-time U.S. and North American Rally Racing Champion, to ask him some questions about the school and his motivation for operating it.

BOB KILPATRICK: Though my dad has been road racing all of my life, I have had no hands-on experience with motor sports until recently, while writing and shooting videos for Seven Days Auto Finder. Something about rally really piqued my interest. Rather than choosing another motor sport, I had to give rally a try.
TIM O’NEIL: I say there are two kinds of people: those who like total control and everything precise, and those who like to wing it. And the over-steer [rally] crowd seems to be better at winging things than having everything perfect.

BK: That makes sense. I like to push my limits. I like things a little on the edge.
TO: That’s why the new generation is so hot on rally, because a lot of them are like that. They’ve seen stock car racing and they think, That’s foolish, and they’ve seen drag racing and they think, That’s foolish, but this [rally] is completely wacky.

Team_oneil_rally2 BK: They’re raised on video games and hanging by the seat of their pants — on a game controller. So that’s what they look for, I guess. I was really impressed with the course and instructors; I never felt like I was thrown into something. It was a very steady progression. How long did it take you to develop the course and the steps we go through?
TO: It’s still evolving today, but for the most part it took me about two years. I come from military and flight training. I need to be able to train a group of 12 people, and they’re all different. If I was training some rally champion, it would be different, but I have to train people who are scared of driving or who don’t know how to drive with a standard transmission. You have to create a crawl-walk-run process that’s made for everybody.
We get about 90 percent success, which means that, with nine out of 10 students, I would ride anywhere with them after this training. We are still evolving. Techniques like trail braking — we didn’t really have it as an official exercise until about six years ago. And learning about lines and apexes — standing outside the car and looking at the cones that outline the course and judging where to point the vehicle — we didn’t do that six years ago . . .
This training program is not very cost-effective for us. If I were looking for 30 percent profit, like most people, I would never run the business this way. I would have to increase the ratio of students to teachers. At the end of the day, though, I would not be able to provide the same level of high-quality instruction. If you said you wanted to learn this all in one day, I couldn’t do it. I need that first day to teach you a technique and then let that sink in. The second day, we teach you another technique and let that sink in. Now, the third day, we’re taking those techniques and putting them together. And now we let that sink in.
It’s got to be over time. There have to be failures. Part of the problem we have in our society, I think, is there aren’t enough failures. If you went for your driving test in Europe, you’d fail the first time. With our system, if you don’t do it exactly right, you spin out immediately and hit the bank. Then you’re like, all right, I’ll learn, I’ll listen.

BK: So if there’s not great revenue in this, what led you to do it?
TO: The satisfaction of seeing you come from where you were to where you are now. I love being outside. I love driving cars. This is my passion. I don’t do anything for money. You have to make money to pay your bills and pay your people, but I just really get a buzz from seeing people learn. I think it’s a life-changing experience. People come back and tell me they saved their own life because of what I taught them. I won’t die when I see a moose in front of me because I know how to react. People tell me that three or four months or a year later, a moose jumped out in front of them and they went right around him and their wife goes, “Wow! Where’d you learn that?” Then they realize I made them visualize what they would do in that situation. So, when it happens, you react appropriately because you’ve already worked it through.

BK: What are your long-term goals for Team O’Neil?
TO: We’re going to continue doing what we do. We’re going to do it better, like we always do, everything better. We will provide synthetic [simulation-based] training with live training. That will make the live training better. We’ll do motor-sport testing and development. But everything is all about driver improvement.

Interested in rally racing or in dramatically improving your foul-weather or accident-avoidance driving skills at Team O’Neil? I encourage you to read more about my day-by-day experience at the school and see videos of my exploits in the rally section here on my Good Carma blog. I’ll warn you, though, this training may sound like work, but in reality it’s more fun than you could imagine. And fun like that is contagious.

January 07, 2009

Winter Safe Driving Tips

Af-image010709 To drive safely on ice and snow, you need to prep your car and acquire the knowledge and driving skills to handle winter’s slippery conditions. Snow and ice present an entirely different driving experience than dry or even wet pavement. For your own, your passengers’ and other motorists’ safety, learn how to drive with control. It could be a matter of life and death.

First, give yourself a test. Don’t wait until you’re on an icy highway to determine whether you, and your car, have what it takes. Find a traffic and hazard-free area such as an empty parking lot that is covered with snow. At a slow speed, try braking quickly to a stop. Does your car brake evenly? Depending on your braking system and its condition, the car may veer right or left, or fail to stop as intended. Do you have ABS brakes? They have a “stuttering” action that can be alarming. Try them out so you are not shocked by their effect. If you find your ability to stop the car is significantly reduced in ice and snow, be sure to have a professional check your vehicle.

Next, practice turning. Think “donuts” are just for teenagers? Think again. You should practice maneuvering your car under controlled conditions to sharpen your reaction time when you encounter a sudden loss of traction out in traffic. Try driving in a circle and continue to build speed slowly until the car starts to lose traction. Practice until you can control the vehicle even as it starts to skid.

Here’s what to do if you start to skid in practice or on the road. Your instinct will probably be to hit the brakes, hard. That’s the wrong thing to do and will likely reduce your ability to control the car. First, let off the gas and then steer in the direction you wish to be moving. Depending on the nature of the skid and the configuration of your vehicle, there are a variety of next steps, but it all starts with practice and knowledge of your vehicle. Knowing when to brake and when to accelerate out of a skid are things you can’t just read about and then accomplish without practice.

Want to take it to the next level? Local groups such as the Sports Car Club of Vermont host events year-round that can help you hone your driving skills in a supportive and safe environment. Team O’Neil Rally School & Car Control Center in New Hampshire offers a variety of winter driving sessions that can teach you to drive like a pro on any road condition.

What if you do stuff your car in a snow bank? If you aren’t buried too deeply, first try slowly turning your wheels back and forth to clear some snow away from them. Then press the gas slowly, but don’t spin your tires. That will just dig you in further. If you are really stuck, you’ll need to get out and clear snow from around the vehicle to free it up. Then pour some sand or kitty litter in the path of the wheels. Now when you try to drive out, attempt to use a rocking motion by pressing and releasing the accelerator. Again, don’t spin the tires excessively. You can also shift back and forth from forward to reverse, but some automatic transmissions can be damaged by this action, so be sure to check your owner’s manual first.

Nobody wants to get in an accident, especially in frigid temperatures; you might end up stuck on the highway or on a remote back road until help arrives. Taking the time to prepare yourself and your vehicle is well worth the effort. Approach it as an enjoyable challenge and have fun!

Sports Car Club of Vermont
www.sccv.org

Team O’Neil Rally School & Car Control Center
www.teamoneil.com
603-444-4488

Tips for Driving on Ice and Snow
• Slow down! Many drivers don’t reduce their speed until they see another driver lose control, or one stuck in a snow bank. If there is ice or snow on the road, assume that your traction will be reduced.
• Since it will take longer to stop on a slippery road, leave extra space between you and other vehicles.
• Brake, accelerate and steer gently. Sudden changes can cause you to lose traction and control.
• Drive with your lights on even if in the daytime — it makes you more visible to other motorists.
• Be sure to clean off your headlights and remove all frost from your windshield.
• Beware of bridges, snow-blown roads and shady areas, as they generally freeze up first.
• Maintain a safe distance from plow vehicles. You are better off staying behind them. If you have to pass, do so with great caution. And assume that road conditions will be worse in front of them.
• Avoid using cruise control and overdrive on icy roads.
• Don’t assume having four-wheel or all-wheel drive gives you super powers — it will not stop your vehicle any faster than two-wheel drive would. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are often the first ones to go careening off the road because of the over-confidence they inspire.

Source: www.weather.com

Winter Auto Checklist

  • Switch to snow tires
  • Test battery and charging system
  • Check anti-freeze mixture
  • Get scheduled oil changes
  • Fill washer fluid
  • Inspect windshield wipers
  • Inspect belts and hoses
  • Inspect brakes
  • Inspect spare tire
  • Locate jack and lug wrench
  • Assemble emergency kit (should include flashlight, jumper cables, blanket, gloves, sand or kitty litter and energy food)
  • Wash your vehicle throughout the winter to remove salt
  • Keep gas above a half tank, especially prior to winter storms
  • Add dry gas prior to bouts of extremely cold weather

Courtesy of McCaffrey Sunoco of Burlington, Vermont

December 16, 2008

A Rabbit By Any Other Name

In October, when Car and Driver named the Volkswagen GTI one of the 10 “most fun cars for $25,000,” I knew I had to get my hands on one. I’ve been reading great things about it for years and finally got my chance to test-drive one last week, courtesy of Lewis Motors in South Burlington.

The Volkswagen GTI is really just a sport version of the Volkswagen Rabbit — though they’re marketed as different cars — and that got me thinking. Maybe I should take them both out and compare. So that’s what I did.
The story actually starts way back in 1938, when Volkswagen began building the economical Beetle. It became one of the most influential and iconic vehicles of all time, and was once the world’s best-selling. By 1975, though, the nearly 40-year-old Beetle was primitive by most vehicular standards. Volkswagen needed a solid replacement. It took years of trial and error, but the company finally came up with a winner. Enter the Rabbit.

Before I go on, there’s a wrinkle in this story: The Rabbit is a Golf. “Rabbit” is just a name, and everywhere else in the world, except the U.S. and Canada, it will always be a Golf. To further confuse matters, though the car is called the Rabbit now in North America (as it was in 1976 when it came to our shores), from 1985 to 2006 it was called the Golf here as well. And Golf doesn’t refer to the sport of golfing. It is short for Golf-Strum, and that’s German for Gulf Stream. It’s a nod to the ocean connecting our shores, where the Germans hoped to ship many, many cars.

OK, glad we cleared that up.

Now, what did the Rabbit have that would make it a worthy successor to the Beetle? For one thing, it was a hatchback, a design that gave it lots of space for its small size. The tall hatchback was so influential that several copycat designs appeared within a few years, including on the Dodge Omni and Ford Escort.
While an economically spacious cabin was a plus, the Rabbit was a joy to drive, too. It had a Twist-beam rear suspension and independent Macpherson strut front-suspension system that gave the car excellent handling characteristics. I had two Rabbits in the ’80s and can attest to the fun I had whipping them around the streets of New Haven, Connecticut. Finally, when the high-performance GTI version rolled out in 1983, it created an entirely new genre of vehicles, called the “Hot Hatch,” and that solidified the reputation of this great small car.

Fast forward 25 years and the Golf (or Rabbit) is the third-best-selling vehicle of all time, with more than 25 million built. That puts it right after the Toyota Corolla and Ford F-Series pickups, at 35 and 32 million units, respectively, and, interestingly, just ahead of the VW Beetle at 21 million units. So, Volkswagen’s effort to replace the Beetle was indeed a great success.

Unlike the Beetle, which had essentially the same design for its many years of service, the Rabbit has evolved, keeping the car in competition with many formidable opponents along the way.

Today the Rabbit and the GTI share some common characteristics. Both show evidence of their German lineage, with many components and engineering deriving from Volkswagen’s sister companies, Audi and Porsche. That they are faster than their peers and fun to drive is a two-edged sword, as it also results in fair but not great fuel economy. Both vehicles can be described as well built, safe, sporty and tastefully designed. The differences between Rabbit and GTI are exactly what you’d expect from any performance upgrade: a better engine, brakes and suspension.

The GTI gets a turbo-charger with an extra 30 horses, which enables it to reach 60 mph about a second quicker than the Rabbit. It gets a six-speed manual transmission instead of the Rabbit’s five-speed. For automatic shifting, they both get six-speeds, but the GTI’s offers a state-of-the-art Direct Shift Gearbox, which delivers more power, better control and faster performance than a manual transmission. The GTI suspension is beefier and more comprehensive, which makes it a favorite on the autocross circuit. And since you can’t see all that performance equipment, the GTI’s interior and exterior design elements are cranked up a notch with sportier and more attractive details.

That doesn’t leave the Rabbit lacking much, though. First, consider that it starts at about $7000 less, with an MSRP of $15,890. And it has plenty of power for normal driving situations. Each of these VWs fills a different niche, allowing the same basic vehicle to compete on the lower end with affordable small cars such as the Mazda3 and Honda Civic, and on the higher end with upscale small cars such as the Audi A3 and BMW’s 1-Series.

The Rabbit and GTI are a couple of great vehicles, one a reliable daily driver, the other a little classier with some extras to get your adrenaline pumping.

December 10, 2008

Vermont’s Rally Royalty

This is the third in a series of Rally articles. See also "What is Rally?" and Rally Redux with Rally great John Buffum.

Af121008lance Lance Smith is the president of Vermont SportsCar in Colchester. He translated a love of rallying into a hugely successful business venture that keeps him right where he wants to be: in the heart of rally racing in America. Vermont SportsCar runs Subaru Rally Team USA, which has won the last three Rally America National Championships. Last week, Smith slowed down enough to share the ride.

BOB KILPATRICK: How long has Vermont SportsCar been around, and when did the focus turn to rally?
LANCE SMITH: We started in 1988 and our focus was restoring exotic sports cars. Though my background and education was with exotic sports cars, my passion was with rally. I always had a rally car and did my first rally school in ’79. I was 18.

BK: So, it’s been a lifelong passion?
LS: Yep . . . The collector car market slowed in 1990. I purchased what was left of the original company and carried on. Each of my former partners wanted to try rally. They said, “Jeez, we’d like to give that a go.” And I got to build their rally cars. I slowly changed the focus to be more rally oriented. We still do restorations now, but we do about one a year. It used to be 95 percent restorations and 5 percent rally, and now it’s totally the other way.

BK: Your specialty on the course is as a co-driver. Tell me about that experience.
LS: I used to be upset that I was born on the wrong side of the water [Atlantic Ocean]. There was no real rallying in the United States. You couldn’t get any funding. So I spent years frustrated with that. Then I went for a ride with John Buffum in his Audi Quattro when it was first delivered. Cutting-edge, state-of-the-art stuff, and here’s a guy in Vermont who had one! As soon as that happened, I could never change my focus again. I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life: I wanted to be a rally driver.
But I loved the sport of rallying even more than my desire to be a rally driver. So building the cars and co-driving was a really good way for me to stay involved. I was onboard for any issues. I co-drove for Dick Corley in town here for three or four years, and we were running at a high level in the national championship. That was really good. We were fighting with the big boys from a team that started with nothing. Then, riding with Carl Merrill, we actually won the North American Rally Cup. That was my highest achievement as a co-driver.

Block BK: What makes Vermont SportsCar unique?
LS: When I started looking at rally, I thought I could make a name for us there. I tried to bring the fit and finish of a restoration project into the world of rally in the United States. At the time, the fit and finish of rally vehicles was not very high. Our cars presented very well and performed well. Our attention to detail was different than everybody else’s. I found a little niche for myself there.

BK: How did you get involved with Subaru Rally Team USA?
LS: We collaborated with Prodrive in 2001, providing half of the people and the infrastructure for the team, and that was our first factory contract. In 2003 Subaru contacted us about running a program of just parts delivery, and since then we’ve grown the project. Two thousand-six was our first year as a full factory team for Subaru. Since then we’ve won the championship every year. We’ve also put a new emphasis on marketing the sport. We have different drivers now that have a big fan base, and that’s why we have this explosion of interest in rally. These drivers, Travis Pastrana, Ken Block and Dave Mirra — when they talk, people listen. We didn’t have that before.

BK: How big was getting rally into the X Games?
LS: A huge move, monumental. The story goes that when Travis was leaving the X Games in 2005, after he won a Gold Medal in Freestyle, he said, “Well, it’s too bad I’m not going to be back next year. You guys don’t have rally in the X Games and I’m going rallying next year.” The guys running the X Games stopped and took the time to find out “what is rally?” And because of that, it opened a whole bunch of eyes. ESPN was looking for some form of motorsport to transition the X Games, to get to a slightly older audience and get more eyeballs, and Travis gave it to them on a plate. They took a big chance with rally and it worked.
Our team of drivers is unbelievable. We’ve been given a real gift. Between [sponsors] Subaru of America, BFGoodrich Tires, Red Bull, Monster Energy Drink . . . and then we get three spokesmen [Pastrana, Block, Mirra] who are all enthusiastic. Each one of them is different. They’re all experts in their own field and they’ve decided to converge on rally at one time? And with us? It’s crazy.

Srt_usa_4  

See also "What is Rally?" and Rally Redux with Rally great John Buffum.

December 03, 2008

Rally Redux

Af120308buffum2 John Buffum is the best rally driver the U.S. has ever produced. He holds the U.S. record for rally wins with 11 national titles and 117 national championship event victories. He is also the only American to ever win a European Championship event. John came to Vermont in the early ’60s to attend Middlebury College and has lived here just about ever since. He continues to prepare winning rally cars from his company Libra Racing in Colchester, and is also an advisor to Vermont SportsCar and Subaru Rally Team USA.

BOB KILPATRICK: How were you first introduced to Rally?
JOHN BUFFUM: By a fraternity brother of mine, in ’64 in Middlebury. He said, “Let’s go to a rally,” and I said, “What’s a rally?” I had no idea. We borrowed another fraternity brother’s MGA. We went on this little local rally that a guy named Frank Churchill put on. We loved it — it was great, good competition; good trying to find our way around and also stay on the time.

BK: What was your first big race?
JB: I was stationed in the army in Germany and I’d always read about the Monte Carlo Rally. We bought an ex-factory training car (Porsche 911) and went and did the ’69 rally, which was as big a rally as you could get in the world. Talk about a minnow in the ocean: I was totally out of my realm, over my head, but it came out fine. Things just sort of flowed along and, after five days, we were really tired, but we ended up finishing 12th. It was an unbelievable achievement.

Af120308buffum1 BK: When you look back on all the years, are there any particular events or moments that really stand out in your memory as personal highlights?
JB: In ’84 we did a program in Europe. Joe Hoppen was the boss of Porsche, Audi & Volkswagen motorsports in America. He got me an Audi Quattro to race in ’82. Because of its four-wheel drive and turbo-charged power, it was head-and-shoulders above everything else at the time. In ’84, BF Goodrich had also been involved with Audi in the U.S. rally program. They said, “We want to sell tires in Europe, so why don’t you do this program in Europe with your Audi?” We did a five-event program. That was the World Championship level. We were fifth at the Acropolis rally, behind two factory (race-prepared) Lancias and two factory Audis. And then we won the Cyprus Rally, which was the European Rally Championship. That was as good a season as I could have.

BK: I’m getting ready to try my hand at rallying at the local level and I’d like to ask for your advice.
JB: If you’re interested in road rallies and some rallycrosses, that’s a great place to start. It’s exactly how I started. It gives you an idea of what you are getting into. It gives you some car control. You start to see tree lines.
BK: They start to have meaning.
JB: Yeah, and you start to put all these things together.

BK: Do you have any driving tips? How can someone learn to be a successful rally driver?
JB: Go to Tim O’Neil’s [rally school]. You need somebody to tell you all of these things. If you’re in the shade, if you’re coming down into trees, it’s apt to be more slippery, so leave yourself a little more buffer. You can use the tree line or the telephone pole line to guide you where the road may go. You want to look up. You don’t want to look two car lengths in front of you; look down the road. I did a German championship rally with the Quattro. I remember part way through the rally I started to try to drive fast. When you try to drive fast, a lot of times you get sloppy and you end up driving slower. And my co-driver said, “Easy, use the advantage of the car.” Don’t come barreling into the corner and do asshole over elbows around the corner. Make sure you get a nice acceleration and fast speed out of the corner. Carry the speed out of the corner.

BK: Do you see anything going on now with rally that gives you hope for its future?
JB: In the last two or three years Subaru has become heavily involved and (also) with Travis Pastrana and Ken Block. Travis’ name has been fantastic because people, especially younger people, know who Travis is. You’ve got the X Games — you’ve got a different segment of the population. Now you’ve got energy drinks coming in — Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster. And this is perfect to go along with rally. Yeah, there is some hope there.

BK: You’ve heard the saying, “If I knew then what I know now.” Is there anything you’d go back and do differently?
JB: I have a poem on my desk that my daughter gave me, by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood . . .” which is a similar type of thing. There’s this guy walking along in the woods and there are two paths, a fork in the road, and he doesn’t know which one to take. It’s so true about life. Were there things I’d do differently? Sure, there would have been smaller things. I look back at what I’ve done and the people I’ve met and known with great fondness. You have what you have and live what you live.

This is part two of a three part series.
Part I: What is Rally?
Part III: Vermont's Rally Royalty with Lance Smith of Vermont SportsCar

November 26, 2008

What Is Rally?

Pastrana2 This is the first in a three-part series about rally competition and the internationally renowned drivers and organizations right here in Vermont.
See also-
Part II: Rally Redux with rally great John Buffum
Part III: Vermont's Rally Royalty with Lance Smith of Vermont SportsCar.

Rally is a motor sport in which drivers navigate from point to point. It is different from NASCAR or Formula 1 racing, in which drivers lap the same course over and over. The unmatched variability in rally provides a constant challenge, with hills, dips and turns coming often at breakneck speed and with little advance notice. A common saying sums up the sport: “Oval track racers see the same two corners 500 times, while rally racers see 1000 corners just once.”

Rally, the first form of auto racing, started in the late 1800s. At that time it was primarily a competition between auto manufacturers as they tested their new machines. Courses were thousands of miles long, often running from city to city, such as Paris to Madrid or New York to Seattle.

As you can imagine, having vehicles racing through small towns and city streets was dangerous — injuries and deaths were not uncommon. As the 20th century wore on, most top-level rally races were moved to either remote corners of the world or closed courses. The primitive nature of the courses resulted in the “standard” road surface being anything but. Furthermore, rallies are at the mercy of weather conditions, as races are run in all seasons, in snow and rain, and on pavement, dirt and ice.

Sport seems to inspire human innovation, and rally is no exception. Cars that are now popular for normal transportation, such as the Mini Cooper and the Audi Quattro, were originally designed specifically for rallying.

Rally teams are composed of a driver and co-driver, or navigator. The latter shouts out directions about fast-approaching corners and hills just in time to enable the driver to take on the terrain at the fastest possible speeds. It is a unique relationship with both participants sharing responsibilities that can make or break their outcomes.

Rally comes in several types, including stage, road and rallycross.

Stage rallies are where you’ll likely find the pros. A race will usually include a number of “special stages” that take place on very fast, closed courses, and a series of “transit stages” in which the vehicles navigate between the special stages on public roads. The cars used for stage rallies are full-on racing vehicles with roll cages and safety equipment, but, like all rally cars, they must be registered for travel on public roads.

This type of rally, somewhat modified for television, was added to the Summer X Games in 2006. Well-known X Games competitors such as Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra are helping to grow the popularity of rally in the U.S. The ultimate race in this country is the Rally America National Championship.

Road rallies, also known as Time-Speed-Distance, or TSD, rallies, take place on public roads and focus on navigation and maintaining a set speed rather than attempting to drive as fast as possible. Anyone can enter, and you don’t need a special vehicle. A recent example was the Covered Bridge Rally at Sugarbush on November 1, in which participants navigated some 150 miles back and forth across gap roads in the Green Mountains. These events provide opportunities to build the skills and teamwork a rally group needs to be competitive in more challenging events.

Rallycross Rallycross is the amateur version of a stage rally, except there are no stages, and takes place at a single location. Anyone can enter but must have a helmet. Events are generally organized by local branches of groups like the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). Similar to autocross, drivers race around a course outlined by cones or snow banks, but, rather than driving on pavement, they’re on a limited-traction surface such as grass, dirt or snow. Courses are short — it usually takes about a minute to get from start to finish. Drivers run the course over and over throughout the day, and the fastest or best-accumulated time for the series determines the winner. While road rallies challenge navigation and teamwork skills, rallycross more directly challenges individual driving skills.

I checked out my first rallycross in Huntington a couple of weeks ago, and am hoping to debut as a driver on December 6 at the SCCA Wolf Cross Rallycross in Proctorsville. This is a great way to practice driving skills and have fun in a safe and supportive environment.

Speaking of learning driving skills, Team O’Neil Rally School & Car Control Center in New Hampshire is another great place to start. It runs multi-day classes almost every month throughout the year. I’ll be heading over there in January to report on what the school is all about.

One of the most successful and popular rally teams in the U.S. is Subaru Rally Team USA, winners of the Rally America National Championship for the past three years. It may come as a surprise to some readers that the Subaru team is based in Colchester, led by Lance Smith and Vermont SportsCar. There must be something in Colchester’s water, because John Buffum, the most successful rally driver in American history, also lives there.

Part II: Rally Redux with rally great John Buffum
Part III: Vermont's Rally Royalty with Lance Smith of Vermont SportsCar.

November 19, 2008

Share The Car, Not Just The Road

Green_car CarShare Vermont is an interesting new nonprofit that will open for business in Burlington in just a few weeks. Its mission is to provide an affordable, convenient and reliable alternative to private car ownership that will also reduce the community’s overall car usage. I sat down with founding Executive Director Annie Bourdon to find out what’s driving CarShare’s efforts.

BOB KILPATRICK: Where does the idea for car sharing come from?
ANNIE BOURDON: Car sharing is a national trend. I moved here from San Francisco in 2004, where I helped a friend start City CarShare, which was the first nonprofit car-sharing organization in the country. Right around the time I moved up here, I got connected with some folks from Burlington who were really interested in car sharing and we said, “Let’s do it!”

BK: Tell me about the model — how does it work?
AB: It’s a pretty easy concept. We have a network of cars, we own the cars, we insure them and we insure our members. The cars are all decentralized, so, unlike a rental car company where you have to go to a designated site and fill out the paper work and the cars are all parked in one lot, our cars are all self-accessible and parked around town. You have to reserve a car before you use it. You can hop online and use our website or pick up a phone and use our automated phone system. You can reserve the car for as little as half an hour or as long as you want. You pay $4.95 an hour and 25 cents a mile. That includes comprehensive insurance and gas.

BK: How many vehicles do you have?
AB: We are planning on launching with eight. They will be located at six pods around the city. A pod is simply where the car is parked, and there will be a sign designating that it is for CarShare only.

BK: What types of cars are they?
AB: If everything goes according to plan, we will have hybrid Toyota Priuses and all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza hatchbacks. That’s a good mix of having really fuel-efficient cars and cars that will be great in the winter.

BK: What if a business such as Seven Days wanted to become a member of CarShare?
AB: Car sharing is ideal for businesses, not just for mobility needs — like, you need to get to a meeting — but it also encourages employees not to drive to work. Oftentimes employees will drive to work just because of the fear that they might need their car during the day. So, by having access to CarShare, employees can use alternative transportation and know that if they need a car, they can use one of ours. There’s a modest monthly fee, which ranges on the number of employee drivers, and then they pay the exact same hourly and mileage rates. The business receives a detailed, itemized invoice. We really take the hassle out of fleet management, so we save on administrative costs for the business, too.

BK: How does providing people with cars reduce car usage?
AB: People often don’t make the connection, but car sharing inevitably results in a dramatic reduction in the amount people drive. The carbon reduction is about a ton a year for each member. That’s significant. When you buy a car, you’ve already sunk money into it. You rationally want to get your money’s worth. When you pay by the mile, something shifts; it’s a behavioral change and you just decide, Do I really need to drive, or could I walk, could I bike, could I take the bus? If you own a car, you drive it. So just by not owning — and even though it’s significantly less money to drive a CarShare vehicle — people just drive less. What we think is so phenomenal about our service is that it’s convenient, it’s cost effective, it’s super practical, and it still results in all these benefits for the community and the environment. We also help increase mobility for folks who just can’t afford to drive, and when it’s freezing cold and they’ve got to bring their kid to a doctor’s appointment, we give them access to a car. There’s really not a downside to car sharing.

BK: How can people find out more so they can decide if they’d like to become a member?
AB: They can go on our website, which is carsharevt.org. It has a great overview of how it works. They are welcome to call me at 861-2340, or to stop by our office at 131 St. Paul Street. I’m more than happy to sit down and answer questions.

November 05, 2008

All In The Family

In Swanton, Vermont, there is a small, family-owned Ford dealership by the name of EJ Barrette & Sons. The sons have long since grown up; these days a customer is likely to be greeted by EJ’s 3-year-old great-great-granddaughter Bella, or Maggie the showroom dog. I met these nice folks through Auto Finder and recently drove north to take in the down-home atmosphere and query the descendents of EJ Barrette about what makes them unique.

Ej_barrette BOB KILPATRICK: How long has EJ Barrette been in business?
JON BARRETTE: It was started in 1922 by my grandfather, Elias Jeffrey. That’s where the EJ came from. My dad took it over after that. I was the next generation, and now we have the three kids here to follow on.

BK: How old were you when you started working here?
JB: Probably 9 or 10 years old, washing cars. I went on to college and graduated in 1968. I was in the Air Guard for 29 years and, other than deployments, I’ve been here.

BK: 1968 was pretty much the middle of the muscle-car era. You guys must have seen some sweet rides come across the parking lot.
JB: I had a very limited-edition Boss 429 — that was in ’69. I had a 1968 Cobra Jet 428 and a 351 Mach1 in ’71.

BK: Those must have been some fun cars. Did you get yourself in any trouble?
JB: Not any more than anyone else!

BK: How many of your family members work here?
JB: There’s the three kids, my sister, my wife and myself.

Photo Front Row: Maggie, the showroom dog, and Bella, the greeter
Back Row (L to R): Linda Barrette, Aaron Barrette, Meredith Barrette, Jon Barrette, Paula Barrette Howrigan, Sara Barrette

BK: Is Ford doing anything new that would be of interest to car drivers?
JB: Quality. Our quality is equal to, or better than, Toyota or Honda. There were eras where we didn’t do as well as we should have, but we’ve certainly surpassed that now. We have more to offer, we really do. Buying foreign, even if it’s built over here, the components come from overseas. With the economy struggling, people don’t realize that 80 percent of the content comes from overseas, which is jobs. They’re glued together here, but these big companies take their profits and they bring them back overseas. People do not understand that. They want the economy to flourish, but they don’t want to participate.

BK: What’s your role here, Sara [Jon’s daughter]?
SARA BARRETTE: I think everybody does a little bit of everything. Mostly I do the advertising, Internet sales, computer repair and some selling.

BK: What’s the advantage that your dealership brings to its customers?
SB: We know everybody by their names. We often know what vehicle they have and what vehicle they had five years ago. A lot of customer loyalty, a lot of repeat buying, because they know where to find us if they’ve got a problem, if they’ve got a question, if they need a loaner. We get calls all times of the day and night. [Customers] know we’re going to be honest and give them the truth. Sometimes it’s good news, sometimes it’s not, but they know they’re going to get the truth from us.

BK: How does that work for the customers?
SB: Most people who end up buying here buy here because they immediately feel like they’re one of our good friends or one of the family, even if they’ve never walked in here before. I’ve had a few people say that to me; they just immediately felt it, with the kids running around and the dogs coming up to them. Their kids can go and play with Bella’s toys that are everywhere.

BK: What would surprise people about EJ Barrette?
SB: I think that we’re pretty competitive with our price. People think that because we are small we can’t compete with big places on pricing. We’ve been around so long, we don’t have a lot of overhead — we own our building. We’re not big and splashy. When you come here and buy a vehicle, you’re only paying for the vehicle, you’re not paying for our building, or our trips to Italy. When you look at the bottom line and you’re comparing apples to apples, I think we’re very competitive on price — and above and beyond on service.

Suddenly joined by Bella Barrette:
BB: Bwa wa wa wa

BK: What kind of car would you buy?
BB: A pink one and a purple one.

SB: Would you ever get a truck?
BB: No, I’m not a boy.

SB: Nothing cracks me up more than when I’m sitting in here doing my work and I hear her say [to a customer], “Would you read me a book?” while they’re waiting for their car to get serviced.

Editor’s Note: That’s just the sort of experience you’ll likely have if you venture up to this family-owned Ford dealership. If you ever find yourself in need of a new or used car or truck consider swinging by EJ Barrettes and see for yourself what they’ve got to offer. From what I’ve seen I’d expect that they’ll do their very best to make sure you’re another satisfied customer.

October 29, 2008

How Does A Cabbie Fare?

Taxisign Jernigan Pontiac is a full-time cab driver and the author of Seven Days’ long-running “Hackie” column and two book compilations. You’ve probably read his stories about the interesting people he drives around Vermont. This week I turned the tables and interviewed him about his life on the road as a cabbie.

BOB KILPATRICK: What do you think of Vermont drivers? Does anything frustrate you about their driving habits?
JERNIGAN PONTIAC: To be a cab driver, you can’t get too upset about other people’s driving habits. Why? Because you’d go nuts. I drive four or five thousand miles a month, and if I let that bother me I would have ulcers on top of ulcers. To really get my attention, you’d probably have to pull out an Uzi and aim it at my gas tank. Short of that, I give people a lot of slack. I anticipate people are going to do really boneheaded things, and then if they don’t, great.

BK: Do you think roads are getting worse, or is it cyclical?
JP: I think it’s cyclical. In and around Chittenden County, they keep them up pretty well. Given the conditions of what you’re dealing with in Vermont — the salt, the freezing and the frost heaves — I think they do as good a job as can be expected. I’ve been in other parts of the country and the roads are way, way worse.

BK: Burlington traffic seems to get worse every year. Would you agree?
JP: It’s just amazing. You think one year it can’t get worse and then the next year it’s even worse. But there are still shortcuts — which I really can’t reveal.

BK: But that was one of my questions! What’s the best shortcut?
JP: I’d have to kill you. Off the record, between me and you I might, but I can’t publicly. By and large, there are ways to zip around town, but these are the tricks of the trade.

BK: Your vehicle is crucial to your livelihood. How do you take care of it?
JP: Probably if I would drive my taxis nice and easy they would last a lot longer, but that boat sailed for me a long time ago. I brake hard, I accelerate hard, I turn hard. All the things you’re not supposed to do. I go over speed bumps like Smokey and the Bandit. But there’s a practical reason. You’ve got to zip around as a cab driver to get the maximum number of fares per hour.

BK: Who does your repairs?
JP: I have a really good mechanic, I trust him. I go to Dave at Ethan Allen Citgo on North Avenue. The best craftspeople have a real humility, and every auto repair is like a little mystery to figure out. In the numbers of years that I’ve run a taxi I should be a master mechanic, but I’m a complete ignoramus. So I really depend on my mechanic, and this guy is really, really good. I never have any worry that he is going to do an unnecessary repair.

BK: How many vehicles have gone through over the years? How often do you have to replace them?
JP: I generally go through a car every two years. There might be a better way to do it, but what has worked for me is that I get a car with about 60 or 70 thousand miles. I’m completely disinterested in what year the car was built. It’s totally about the condition of the car. And then, with any luck, I run it to about 150 to 200 thousand miles. At that point, you’ve got to know when to cut bait and fish — or swim, or get off the pot, or whatever that expression is. And I usually get rid of it before it starts entirely falling to pieces. It has to be dependable at all times, because the last thing I want is to break down in Montréal, or Bennington.

BK: What was your best cab ever?
JP: My best cab ever was the wet dream of cab drivers everywhere, considered the perfect taxi: the Chrysler New Yorker. It’s classy but tank-like. It was the greatest taxi I ever had, but I only had it for four months. One day at the fair out in Essex I picked up a fare. I was waiting at a light and I looked up in my rear-view mirror and there was a small truck bearing down on me. I remember my thought was, "That guy is not going to stop." And he didn’t. He plowed into the back of the New Yorker. They never caught the kids who ran out of the truck. They had stolen it. I remember the sound of the tinkling glass and the dripping liquid and I almost felt like crying. I wasn’t hurt at all. I had two guys in the back who were completely hammered drunk, which totally helped them in that instance. They walked out of the vehicle and I never saw them again. You would have thought they would be dead if you took a look at the back of the vehicle. I actually wrote a “Hackie” story about that event. It was tragic.

October 22, 2008

How to Buy a Car: A 5-Step Plan

Vw_2 Whether you’re thinking of purchasing a car now, during end-of-year sales, or sometime down the road, you’ll do well to have a game plan to help you make the best decision. First and foremost, don’t fall into the trap of letting your emotions — or your ego — interfere with the selection.
Here are the primary steps in choosing the best vehicle for you:

1. First determine what you actually need.
Try not to start by choosing the car you like best. Approach the task with a utilitarian perspective and think about the attributes your new car or truck should have to meet your requirements.
    For example, perhaps your kids have grown up and you can now downsize from that minivan to something smaller. But if this will be your family’s primary vehicle you have to consider how many adults you may need to transport comfortably.
    Speaking of space: Do you have pets that need to ride along? You’ll want to make sure there’s room in the back of a new vehicle for Fido. Or you might haul other large items around on a regular basis like musical or sports equipment, or tools. Can it all fit in the trunk or cargo area or would a smaller car with a roof rack do the trick? If so, figure in about $500 for the rack.
    An important consideration these days is your carbon footprint. The same car that meets your other requirements might come with 4, 6 or 8 cylinders. Are you more interested in performance, or fuel efficiency?

2. Decide whether a new or pre-owned vehicle will better suit the needs you’ve identified. Are you looking for the best warranty available, or simply the “most car” for the money?
    A new car will generally have a much better warranty, so can hedge against unforeseen costs down the road. There’s also a pride in ownership when buying new that can’t quite be matched by buying a car someone else drove for a few years. More importantly, how did the previous owners treat the car?
    On the flip side, a new car depreciates faster — typically at least a grand or two as soon as you drive it off the lot, and in some cases up to 50 percent of the value within three years. That can mean some great bargains in cars from 1 to 3 years old.
    Used car makes and models have a known record. Depending on their reliability over a couple of years they receive ratings from consumer guides that can help steer your choice. Many used cars are now sold with excellent manufacturer certifications. In short, you can often get more bang for your buck by choosing a used car.
For comparisons, I searched Seven Days Auto Finder for both new and used vehicles with a price range of $24K to $26K. I found that for about $25,000 you could get a new 2009 Subaru Outback AWD Wagon or a used 2005 Volvo XC70 AWD Wagon with 21,000 miles. Or, you could consider a new Honda Accord versus a used 2006 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Luxury Sedan with 20,410 miles.

Honda 3. Pick two or three models that fit your criteria and research the reliability, safety and resale value of each. If you need help, email me at goodcarma@sevendaysvt.com and I’ll be glad to assist with that research.

4. Test-drive each of the vehicles you’ve identified. Take notes on what you liked, or didn’t, about each one.

5. Finally, decide which vehicle is right for you and negotiate the best deal possible. As always, email any questions you have to goodcarma@sevendaysvt.com.

October 15, 2008

Going Fast, Taking Chances

Joey Kale is a local Motor Sports enthusiast who has recently gained attention on the hillclimb circuit for coming out of nowhere and executing a serious beatdown on the perennial favorites of the sport. His efforts are even more impressive because he builds his own cars at his small business, Kale’s Custom, a shop in Essex, Vermont, where he specializes in building rally-style Subaru Imprezas. Last week, Kale put down the tools and gave me some face time.

Joey_kale BOB KILPATRICK: Who is Joey Kale? How old are you and what brought you to motor sports?
JOEY KALE: I’m 26 years old. I enjoy driving, driving around Vermont, dirt roads, winter driving. I just love breaking traction and sliding all over the place. In high school I started doing body work, working for a small shop in Essex. I worked there for five or six years, and then I took over the space. I was always building cars in my spare time. I got introduced to racing and hillclimbing. This is my first season racing, and I hope to take the King of the Hill trophy, which I don’t think a rookie has ever done before.

BK: Is the interest in cars a passion you share with your family?
JK: My Dad introduced me to the mechanical side of things. He helped me to do my first engine swap when I was younger. It was an engine swap in a Honda Civic, and that’s what started it all. I was 15; it was before I even had my license. It was the fastest car at Essex High School.

BK: How would you categorize your profession?
JK: General motor sports, any kind of competition by building a car and using what you built. Go fast, take chances. That’s a quote I use.

BK: I’m sure you’re familiar with Vermont SportsCar and what they’re doing. It’s a similar model to yours, but at a national scale.
JK: I know a few of those guys and actually just built a car and sold it to one of their guys. It was the first car I built purposefully for racing and sold. It has a full chrome-moly cage. I seam-welded the whole chassis, so it is very structurally safe. He’s going to be hillclimbing with us. I took it down to the bare frame. [The process is:] Weld it, cage it, put it back together with newer drive train parts, stuff from an ’02 or newer model, turbocharged, three times the power.

Joey_kale_car BK: Is that your business model?
JK: It didn’t make me a lot of money, but it helps get my vehicles out there and shows people what I’m capable of. He drives it to Vermont SportsCar every day and parks it in front of all of them and they all love it. They don’t build custom cars for people on the street. The kids over there saw that and they said, “He’s going to put Lance [Smith, president of Vermont SportsCar] out of business.” It was kinda cool hearing some of their reactions.

BK: Tell me about your hillclimb experience.
JK: This year I have participated in all of the [New England Hillclimb Association events]. At Mt. Ascutney, Okemo and Burke Mt. I placed first in class and second overall. Just a few weeks ago I finally won — by nine seconds — in this year’s second Mt. Ascutney event. I just wanted to compete with some of the fastest guys out there. Arlo Cota, the owner of Imported Car Center, a guy named Don Taylor, who does tech inspections for Rally America for all the national rallies. The guys that were the quickest guys on the hill. I really want to compete in the X Games.

BK: Is there a recognized path to get to the X Games?
JK: There are two options: You either race the entire season and earn your way into it by being one of the top six nationwide, or you can go to the Maine Forest Rally [now New England Forest Rally]. It’s the final qualifier before the X Games, and if you are the fastest non-invited contender, you’re immediately in. So that’s got to be my option. I have to got to Maine Forest Rally and kick some ass.

BK: Your goal is to get to the Maine Forest Rally and win, but you’ve never actually driven in a rally event. It sounds like you better get out there and enter some events!
JK: There’s a school in New Hampshire, Team O’Neil Rally School. I pretty much have to do that. It’s $4000 for a four-day course. You drive and sit in a classroom and he teaches you techniques — what to do, what not to do. You come out of it with coefficient points that you need to be able to race an all-wheel-drive turbo vehicle. Then I need to do two more rallies in a naturally aspirated car and just finish. I don’t even have to place, just make it across the finish line, and then I’m in.

Check out this video of Joey Kale tearing it up at the Burke Mt. Hillclimb

October 08, 2008

Around the ’Benz

Last weekend, my wife Christine and I headed south from Burlington on Route 116 on a combination foliage tour — the trees started showing peak color around Starksboro — and an extended test drive of a Mercedes C 300 Luxury Sedan, courtesy of The Automaster in Shelburne, Vermont. Over the course of the day we would traverse the Green Mountains twice, visit three ski areas, cross four covered bridges and travel more than 150 miles. A picturesque Vermont road trip if ever there was one.

The Mercedes C-Class line presents the most accessible models of this carmaker’s offerings. The C 300 Luxury model I was driving has a 3.0-liter V6 with seven-speed automatic transmission and 4MATIC 4WD system. It puts out 228 hp with a 0-60 mph time of 7.1 seconds. The starting price of $35,400 is reasonable given the advanced German engineering of the engine and drive train, and the high level of comfort and design of the interior.

It was a chilly morning, and the coziness of the eight-way-power, heated seats was almost as good as an onboard masseuse. Seriously.

The controls, which put everything within easy reach, have a feel reminiscent of a high-end audio system. Speaking of audio, the eight-speaker sound system achieved a nice sense of balance. I felt evenly surrounded by clear, quality sound, something I always look for but rarely find in a car.

For those who prefer a more performance-oriented vehicle, the C 300 Sport model is available with six-speed manual transmission, lowered sport suspension and a handsome, aggressively designed grill. From there you can step up to the C 350 Sport, which has a 3.5-liter V6 that adds 40 hp and shaves one second off the 0-60 mph time. Want the ultimate in performance? The C 63 AMG has a 6.3-liter, 32-valve V8 that produces 451 hp and a blistering 4.3-second 0-60 mph time! This bad boy is a street-legal version of the C-Class AMG that has won more races in Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) racing history than any other car.

A mile and a half past the intersection of Route 17, we took a left and headed towards Lincoln. The first geographic highlight of our trip was the beautiful falls in the New Haven River, just off the right side of Lincoln Road.

The Mercedes C-Class engines all employ variable intake and exhaust valve timing. What does that mean? Valves in an engine allow a fuel-air mixture to enter and exit the cylinder. In old-school engines the valves allowed in a fixed amount of fuel and air regardless of conditions. With variable timing, intake and exhaust are adjusted and optimized, allowing the car to get significantly better gas mileage and provide power, or torque, over a greater range of engine speeds. This increased performance was evident, whether I was scaling Lincoln Gap or pretending I-89 was the autobahn.

We had lunch at Sugarbush’s Timbers Restaurant in the new Lincoln Peak Village. As we ate, young daredevils zipped by the windows on an 800-foot zip line. The food was good and the leaf-peepers were plentiful. Every trip should include some exploring, and so from there we headed out Moretown Mountain Road toward Northfield. This turned out to be a nice choice, with far fewer photographers jockeying for that perfect foliage shot.

From there it was north on Route 12 and then west on I-89 to Waterbury. On the Interstate, as Christine gazed out the window at the trees, I pressed the pedal and accelerated to a speed that significantly exceeded what would normally worry her. But the ride was so smooth and quiet, she never even noticed — I totally got away with it! Other cars ticked by in succession until we exited and headed north into the eye of the leaf-peeper’s perfect storm: Ben & Jerry’s, Cold Hollow Cider Mill and Stowe. Needless to say, our momentum was significantly diminished.

Once out of Stowe, we headed up over Smugglers’ Notch on Route108. This is where I first played around with the Touch Shift manual shift mode. Tap the gearshift left or right and it engages, giving you greater control over shifting. Though it didn’t give me quite the feedback of a manual transmission, it was fun and more responsive, and allowed me to further test the performance of the car on the winding road ahead.

The car performed very well for us in all conditions. It’s what you would expect from a Mercedes, but with the redesigned C-Class, I think the automaker has achieved a combination of style and ride that will intrigue a lot of people. After 50 miles in many vehicles, I’m ready to get out and walk. I emerged from the Mercedes feeling good and ready for an evening of fun in Burlington.

October 01, 2008

Yin and Yang

Mma_fighter_car_salesman_2 Burlington resident Noah Weisman is an affable car salesman by day and a dangerous mixed-martial-arts fighter by night. I spoke with him last week to uncover how these two seeming opposites work together.

BOB KILPATRICK: You’ve got a big fight coming up. How do you prepare?

NOAH WEISMAN: A lot of endurance training. I make sure to get to Vermont Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as much as I can. We do a lot of grappling, striking, like punching and kicking. Kickboxing and jiu-jitsu all the time, that’s what I grew up on.

BK: How do you prepare to sell a car?
NW: You’ve got to really pay attention to the customers’ needs, and you’ve got to find what suits them the best. When they come in, you don’t want to show them something they can’t afford. You don’t want to show them something that’s not going to be useful to them. So you have to listen.

BK: So you can’t really prepare to know what they want. You have to know your product line well enough that when they tell you what they need —
NW: — you can tell them, “I’ve got the perfect car for you.”

BK: How long have you been working at Burlington Mitsubishi-Suzuki?
NW: I’ve been there since December of last year, going on a year now.

BK: What’s the coolest car you have on the lot?
NW: Our top-selling cars right now are our Mitsubishi Lancer and our Suzuki SX4.

BK: Tell me about the Suzuki SX4.
NW: The SX4 is America’s least expensive all-wheel-drive vehicle. It’s got a lot of flexibility. It will convert from front-wheel drive to automatic all-wheel-drive to all-wheel-drive lock mode for driving in snow and mud. It’s smaller than the Honda CRV. Its main competition is probably the Nissan Versa, the Honda Fit and the Toyota Matrix.

BK: If you could buy any new car, what would you buy?
NW: My favorite car right now is the Mitsubishi Lancer GTS. It’s just a dynamite car. Just change the oil and put gas in it, and that’s all you’ve got to do. It’s a sporty, sporty car. It’s got the 2.4-liter engine. The automatic comes with a quick, six-speed paddle shifter. It’s dynamite. NASCAR helped design this car.

BK: The Lancer is a rally car, right?
NW: The Lancer Evolution is the real rally car. It’s the really souped-up version of the Lancer. It’s a whole different animal, that car.

BK: What’s a typical day for you like at the dealership?
NW: Be there at 8:30 a.m. Put the sale signs up on the hoods of the cars out front, start filling up some balloons. We have a morning meeting, a lot of phone calls, and then people start coming in. Hopefully, sell some cars.

BK: I would assume that being an MMA fighter might make you a better salesperson because of the confidence you would develop, but does being a salesperson help you be better prepared for an MMA fight?
NW: Yeah, it pays for my classes. It pays for me to be able to train. Gives me a place to live.

BK: Tell me about your fight background.
NW: I’ve had two fights now. I fought and won in the last two Burlington Brawls and now I’m looking to step up to some bigger fights with an organization in the Midwest. One is called Superior Cage Fighting in Ohio and the other is a King of the Cage event in Wisconsin.

BK: Do you have a favorite move that you like to use in a fight?
NW: I like submissions. It’s when you force someone to tap. You bend an arm in the wrong direction. It’s the manipulation of somebody’s body in a direction it shouldn’t be going.

BK: That’s your favorite move in a fight. Do you have a favorite move on the showroom floor?
NW: I think you really need to have a good first impression with somebody. You need to be personable and smile. Have fun with everybody — whether they’re going to buy a car or not, you’ve got to have fun.

BK: You work long hours at the dealership and train in your off time. What do you do to relax?
NW: I relax with my kids every night when I get home, and I have Sundays off. I’ve got a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old, all boys: Yashiah, Zachariah and Ezra.

BK: Do you think they’ll do MMA someday?
NW: Yeah, they train jiu-jitsu right now. My 7-year-old son, he’ll throw an arm bar like the rest of them, I’ll tell you that much. He’s great. He’s been coming to class since he was 2 years old, just watching us all. He loves it.

BK: Do you think there’s anything negative about a kid learning an aggressive sport like MMA?
NW: No, I think it’s good control, because when they are training with each other, the boys know to tap, and they know that when somebody taps they stop. And nobody’s been hurt. They play football, too, and the last time I watched them play, there were three kids laid out on the field in a 7-year-old’s game. And so far my kids haven’t been hurt with boxing gloves on.

Cone Heads

(Editor's note: This article appeared in our paper on Wednesday, September 24, 2008. See video coverage of the recent SCCV Autocross event on yesterday's post Man and Machine.)

Auto racing is fun to watch on TV, but I’m the kind of guy who would rather get out there and try something myself. Many people drive fast, but what’s the best way to do it safely? How does someone go about learning how to race cars?

The Sports Car Club of Vermont (SCCV) has been actively gathering auto enthusiasts since 1956 and bringing them together to practice the skills necessary to excel as a driver. I met with Jim Bauman from the SSCV to find out what they are doing and how someone could get involved.

Auto_cross_subaru_wrx_sti Bob Kilpatrick: What is your organization all about?
Jim Bauman: We have been around for just over fifty years. Mostly it’s been grassroots events. Autocrosses, car shows. When Malletts Bay freezes over with adequate ice we do ice time trials. We’re going to be partnering up with the Northeast Region of the SCCA on a RallyCross and a time speed distance rally in early November hosted by Sugarbush.

BK: Tell me about the big event you are having this weekend.
JB: We are having an Autocross this Sunday at Stowe. An Autocross is a timed event - low speed and precision driving - done in a parking lot around cones. You need a helmet, but other than that your car doesn’t need any real preparation. You’re trying to get through the course as fast as possible without going off-course or hitting any cones.

BK: People coming in to the club, I don’t imagine they all know how to drive properly. Do you provide any kind of instruction?
JB: The more experienced members of the club are always willing to do a ride-along. The person who is experienced jumps in the passenger seat giving you pointers as you go through the course. Or vice versa, you could have the person actually drive your car with you in the passenger seat and show you their line, how they do it, talk you through it. We always make that available. It’s very low pressure. If you don’t know what you’re doing it’s okay.

The typical first timer will come in and over-drive. They’ll try to go to fast and they’ll go off course. You either need to tame your aggressiveness or fill in your caution with speed. It’s fun to watch people go through that progression.

It’s really good to provide a venue for young drivers that want to see what their car can do, but we don’t want them doing it out in the street. If you’ve ever been woken up in the middle of the night by a kid tearing around a school parking lot because he’s trying to figure out if he can drift his STI - that’s great, but it’s not safe and it’s not legal. Autocross is both safe and legal.

Auto_cross_mazda_miata BK: What are some of the popular makes and models in the club?
JB: In Vermont the most seen are Subarus - STIs and WRXs. There is a huge Volkswagen and Audi contingent up here as well. You’ll always see a lot of older VW Rabbits and now GTIs. For autocross events the car to have is a [Mazda] Miata. We have a ton of Miatas in our club. It’s the kind of car that you can run all summer long, put it away in the winter, bring it out in April and be ready to go.

BK: You’re a fan of traditional auto racing, any particular group or driver?
JB: Definitely Formula 1 and sports car racing is where it’s at - road courses - the American Lemans series. I love to watch drivers that can jump into different kinds of cars and go really fast no matter what. Nascar is interesting to me, but it’s more interesting when they go to places like Sears Point or Watkins Glen and see what the oval guys can do on the road courses.

BK: Do you have any drivers you consider yourself a fan of or try to emulate their skills?
JB: I don’t know about emulating. I don’t think I have the kind of talent like those guys who get payed to do it. In terms of all time - Ayrton Senna (1960-1994) is my all time idol. The guy could just control a race in any variety of conditions. He’d just decide that he wanted to win and he’d go out there and do it. Today I think guys like Lewis Hamilton coming up is a pretty amazing talent and just last weekend we had a twenty one year old guy [Sebastian Vettel] win the Italian Grand Prix - just crazy.

BK: Every Monday morning my dad, Bob Sr., is posting the highlights of the previous weekends racing on my Good Carma blog. It’s a lot of fun. You’ll find a kindred spirit as Formula 1 and road tracks are definitely his thing and what he has been doing for his whole life.
JB: Very cool.

The SCCV Autocross takes place this Sunday, September 28th, 2008 at the Stowe Mountain Resort in their Mount Mansfield Base Lodge parking lot.
Registration is from 8 to 9am. Racing starts at 9:15am. The course is broken down by 3pm. Cost to participate is $30 for SCCV members and $35 for non-members. There is no cost for spectators.

September 17, 2008

Free Wheelin' Q&A: Hot-Rodders Jan and Linda Hemsted

Author's note: This is the first Q&A in my new series Free Wheelin'. I'll be interviewing a wide variety of people whose lives intersect with our car culture, whether it's due to their job or their passion. Why am I writing about cars? Find out on the "Who's this Bob guy?" page. You can also find Free Wheelin' on page 31B of this week's Seven Days newspaper.

Bob Kilpatrick: How long have you been interested in Street Rods?

Jan Hemsted: Ever since I was a kid back in South Dakota. 12 Years old I used to watch ‘em. All the juvenile delinquents had ‘em then. So I always wanted one. They had Hot Rods, I thought they were just the coolest car around.

JH: They used to cruise 8th street all weekend long. 8th street was like Shelburne road. They’d just come and go all night long and at the end of 8th street they had a Mcdonalds so they’d all wind up there sooner or later. I was too young to be cruising with them. They didn’t want a kid hanging around.

BK: What kind of cars, were they similar to what you’ve got here?

JH: Yep there were a lot of ’32 Fords, roadsters, a lot of T-Buckets if I remember right back then. Some ’40 Fords, of course this is back in the early sixties. They weren’t to the level of technology we have today. They were pretty rough, but they were cool.

I’d always wanted one since I was a kid. Of course I got married and I had kids and that pretty much took all my money. This one came available at a fairly reasonable price. Went home one night and asked the wife if we had enough grocery money for a couple of weeks. She asked me why and I said I want to buy a car. 250 bucks. She said we can probably get by so I bought this and they dropped it off and she looked at it and she said “You bought that?” Because it didn’t have any fenders at all, it was just basically the body and no engine, no glass in it, I mean it was just, phhht.

BK: But you had a vision.

Continue reading "Free Wheelin' Q&A: Hot-Rodders Jan and Linda Hemsted" »

September 03, 2008

Video Test Drive: 2009 Chevy Malibu Hybrid

It was a beautiful day for a test drive and I was glad to have the chance to get away from the computer and take the 2009 Chevy Malibu Hybrid out for a spin. I picked it up from Shearer Chevrolet in South Burlington, VT and drove it on a variety of road types including cruising on I-89, in traffic jams on Route 7 and on the city streets of Burlington.

The Malibu is a mid-sized sedan that competes favorably against the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. GM has worked hard to close the gap with these Japanese category leaders and the Malibu is one impressive result.

The Malibu received an extensive redesign for 2008 that received high praise from the auto industry.

  • Car and Driver listed it as one of its “10 Best Cars of 2008.”
  • The North American International Auto Show selected it as the “North American Car of the Year.”
  • J.D. Power and Associates named it the “Highest Ranked Mid-Size Car in Initial Quality.”

This car looks good inside and out, a vast improvement over the previous Malibu. More importantly it drives well. It gets darn good gas mileage and I found that it delivered respectable performance and a steady, comfortable ride. It’s also a safe car, receiving 5 stars for frontal and side impact crash test ratings and 4 stars for rollovers which is right on par with it’s Japanese competitors.

The Malibu has 3 trim levels. The LS & LT models get a 2.4L Ecotec 4-cylinder engine, coupled with a 4-speed automatic shifter. That combination achieves 169 horsepower with 22 MPG City and 30 MPG highway. An upgrade to the 6-speed automatic transmission will boost you to 33 MPG highway.

The LTZ model gets a more powerful 3.6L V6 rated at 252 horsepower. Of course there’s a trade-off on gas mileage at 17 MPG City and 26 MPG Highway. You decide where your priorities lie. Each engine provides different advantages.

The Hybrid model I drove uses the 2.4L Ecotec Hybrid engine. The Hybrid technology bumps MPG to 26 City and 34 Highway.

For comparison’s sake, the Toyota Camry Hybrid might be the closest apples-to-apples competitor. The Camry Hybrid gets 33 MPG city and 34 MPG highway so it’s a slight winner in that category with lower city gas consumption. But the base price of the Camry is $1000 more, and the Malibu actually rides a little better. The engine doesn’t turn off when coasting, it has better steering and a tighter suspension which results in a car that’s a little more fun to drive.

What’s my advice?

If you’ve been waiting to buy a quality American car that is a match for its Japanese competitors then the Malibu is for you. It’s a well built, good looking car, with a quiet ride and good performance — and if you care, it’s made in America.

Would I buy the Hybrid? First a reality check – if I wanted to buy a hybrid with the absolute best gas mileage possible, I would probably buy a Toyota Prius. The Malibu though has some attractive features that eht Prius does not. The Malibu is a larger, safer and more comfortable car. Each car fits different lifestyles and needs.

The difference in gas mileage between the 2009 Malibu LT2 with a 6-speed transmission and the 2009 Malibu Hybrid is 4 MPG city and 1 MPG highway. By my calculations it would take almost 10 years to make up the approximate $1000 vehicle price difference via fuel savings. The 6-speed transmission is going to drive better in a variety of conditions.

It would be very difficult for me to pick between these two cars, but with either one the next time Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” came on the radio I’d be ready to sing along ;-)

2009 Chevy Malibu LS LT LTZ Hybrid
Engine 2.4L Ecotec 4-Cylinder 2.4L Ecotec 4-Cylinder 3.6L V6 2.4L Ecotec 4-Cylinder
Transmission 4-Speed Auto 6-Speed Auto 6-Speed Auto 4-Speed Auto
MPG City 22 22 17 26
MPG Highway 30 33 26 34
Invoice $19,604 $22,534 $25,605 $23,337
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