Monday, December 24, 2012

Jeep Shifts into Rebrand mode

An article in today's USA TODAY, explores some of the upcoming name changes and new vehicles in development at Chryster Corp's Jeep brand.
Among them: a single vehicle with replace the Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot sometime in 2014/2015; the company is resurrecting its Grand Wagoneer name plate; and there is speculation that beloved Cherokee name will replace the Liberty.  To read more, click here.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: 2011 Jeep Compass Latitude w/ Attitude

Is it a SUV or a car?
That's what I asked myself when I hopped into my silver 2011 Jeep Compass (its clone is pictured to the left.)
Although the vehicle wears the Jeep badge and has four-wheel drive, it drives as comfy as a passenger car. My sister, who test drove it to haul groceries once and some furniture, said it drove like a truck. So let's call the Compass the Jeep-car.  It's what you need it to be.

The Compass isn't rugged like the Wrangler nor as powerful as its older brother, the Grand Cherokee or Liberty cousin but this sporty wagon with the heartbeat of a Jeep has its own distinct auto personality. To other drivers, it may shout "I'm a suburban youngish professional/parent running errands to Costco, afterschool pickups and soccer practice" yet the Compass also looks right at home ferrying you to the hills to hike or ski.

The looks 
Like a metal rhino, the body is squared off at odd angles and curves that soften toward the rear. It's refreshed front grill, adapted from the Grand Cherokee, looks at you as if grinning and preening, "Yeah, I know I'm different than the Patriot. You like my makeover?" The grill is a step up, a marked departure from the big round Thomas-the-Tank-Engine headlights that seemed to radiate "I'm really really really cute...really!" from the 2007-2010 models. Although it looks beefier and more solid than the Toyota Matrix, the Compass isn't that much wider or longer. The Compass just looks like it would win a wrestling match against the Matrix, err Corolla wagon. Among shoppers, the Compass has been more popular with women because of the vehicle's softer wagon look while men are the predominant buyers of the Compass's fraternal twin, the Jeep Patriot. (I wonder what this says about me as a car buyer?)

The drive

A few months ago, I nervously drove my Compass from Boston to Miami alone. I depended on this safe solid car to drive 1,600 miles for a new life. The ride was smooth while slightly nosy. Although the 2.4 litre, 172-horsepower engine whines when you give it gas to climb uphill or pass another car, that's just the continously variable (CVT) transmission pulling and pushing the car along. Most cars with CVT engines carry a similar sound. You get used to it after a while.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The fast and fabulous

Members of the F.A.G.S. from

My Sun Sentinel article on South Florida's only gay car club - Flamingo Auto Group South (F.A.G.S)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Worst cars...ever!

The LA Times has a photo gallery featuring the 10 worst US cars.  Among them: the 1974 Ford Mustang and the 1971 Ford Pinto. (pictured at the left)
By coincidence, those two cars were driven by Sabrina (Kate Jackson) and Kelly (Jaclyn Smith) in the former ABC primetime detective series "Charlie's Angels."    (As Jill Monroe, Farrah Fawcett drove the white Ford Mustang Cobra (sportier Mustang.)

I'd like to add the 1979 Dodge Aspen to the list.
This was my parent's second new-car purchase in the United States after emigrating from Cuba in 1968. My dad was so proud of having bought this car spic-and-span new. With its dark green hue and white-toned top, the car at it's time was a stunner. But it was also a lemon. I was in first grade when we bought it and yet, I remember all the break-downs vividly. The engine belt snapping off at an intersection in Miami's Little Havana. The car's chronic stalls. (Will I make it to school?) The catalyic converter malfunction. The spark plugs had to regularly be replaced. (Which is probably why the car wouldn't start at times.) The muffler blow-out. The slipperty transmission. Battery died every other year.

While the car was comfortable and spacious (the backseat was large enough to easily fit my dirt bike) and the car offered a smooth nice ride, it wasn't reliable.  We never knew whether my dad would arrive atwork each day or whether I would make it back home in Miami Beach after my driving lessons.
And finally, in 1988 after nine long-years, the car finally croaked. We tried to resuscitate it (I don't why) and it crossed-over to car heaven. R.I.P Dodge Aspen.

It's replacement: a new 1989 light-blue Honda Civic sedan LX which was one of the best cars my father ever bought. We still reminisce about that car (which we owned for 10 years and 100,000 miles but that's another future blog post.) And since that Honda purchase, my father has never bought American-made cars again. Ironically, I've been loyal to the Jeep brand (whose parent company owns Dodge.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Used? New? What's the difference?

2012 Ford Focus
There's an interesting article from USA Today that found that the gap between new and slightly used car prices has narrowed.  The article, based on a Kelley Blue Book study, reported that the window between new and used car prices has shrunk for particular models. The article points out how a new 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser, which costs $28,500 or about  $244 more than a used one.  Or a new 2012 Ford Focus is priced $3,000 on average less than last year's model.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: 2012 BMW X3

I managed to borrow my sister's 2012 BMW X3 a few times this summer for this car review. And here's what I found.

This is a sporty luxury compact SUV that doesn't feel like one. The interior is roomy and can comfortably seat a family of four to five adults. The trunk is spacious, accommodating stacks of boxes (a month's worth of groceries) from the local Costco. 

This car comes with a technology package that includes a knob (think of a safe lock that you spin) that allows the driver to easily pick which radio station to listen to on the radio monitor which lists in order -  like a playlist - all the stations on the dial.

The knob sits to the right of the driver for quick access (or you can use the control buttons on the steering wheel to find your music fix.)  With the flip of a switch, that same radio panel converts to a camera mointor showing drivers a bird's eye view of the car and the streetscape in front and the rear.  If the car is too close to another car while parking or pulling into a space, a gentle beep alerts that you're cutting it close.

Another cool feature: the dual A/C controls which allow the driver to have his/her own temperature, let's say at 66 degrees while letting the front-seat passenger maintain his/her own reading, let's say at 71. The fans are strong enough to rustle the strands of a male driver's thick brown curly hair or a woman's blown-out dark brown hair.

Problems ensued with the automatic gear shifter which was small and resembled a remote control for a ceiling fan or a joystick for a video game. It was confusing figuring out how to kick the car in reverse or drive or simply Park. Unlike most cars where you shift the car easily into R, D or P with a click, this stick was slippery and too soft. I kept hitting R when I wanted to go to D and vice versa. My elderly mom who also drove the car had similar issues.

On the road, the car is easy to drive thanks to  nimble handling. The X3 provides a tight grip and soft, smooth ride. You're in a luxury SUV outfitted with leather seats but you feel like you're in an extremely comfortable compact car. Perhaps it's the way the window and the hood are angled, creating the illusion that the road is just right there, within hands reach.
At stops, the car's 240 hp 3.0 liter engine seems to pause and hesitate as you pull away. This was particularly true when driving up the inclines at the Julia Tuttle Causeway or one of the many small bridges that dot Miami Beach.  But once you give the car some pedal-love, it takes off, it's power unleashed. I've never driven a vehicle with such soft suspension - I felt like I was driving on a road made of a Sealey mattress or marshmellow. Bumps, potholes, rocks - I didn't feel nada. Outdoor noise was minimal.

Gas-wise, the SUV takes 16 gallons which can last about 290 miles, getting 19 mph in the city and about 25 mph on the highway. Overall, the X3 provides a comfortable ride with a hefty price tag ($37,000 to $42,000, depending on the trim and packages.)  It's a strong competitor and a looker among others  in its class - the Audi Q5, the Infiniti EX35. But if you're price-conscious and looking for a somewhat similar ride with fewer options, you may want to consider a fully-loaded Volkswagen Tiguan SUV (think: a fat VW Rabbit with extras) or a top-of-the-line Jeep Compass but then you wouldn't have that coveted BMW badge on your grill.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Pimp my (Lexus) ride

Pimping cars isn't limited to classic Chevys or low-riding Hondas or Toyotas. More expensive brands are getting in on the action.
There's a Lexus dealership in South Florida (JM Lexus of Margate)  that claims to be the only full-scale dealer shop that customizes these Lexus cars. Here' s a story from the Sun Sentinel on the tailored Lexus rides and jow they're becoming a growing revenue stream for the dealer

 JM Lexus Custom Creations 2011 Lexus IS 35 F Sport with leather and suede.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Wheel watchers

Here's a South Florida Sun Sentinel article I wrote that looks at five popular places in South Florida for car gazing.  The biggest one is the weekly Friday night car show at the Tower Shops in Davie (photo below) where you see all genres of cars from souped up Jeep Wranglers to classic 1970s Chevys that are lifted with 22-inch rims.

Frank Ardillo, right, talks with J.T. Federici about his 1953 Chevy pickup at the Tower Shops parking lot in Davie. (Jim Rassol, Sun Sentinel / July 14, 2012)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na...Batmobile!

With the opening of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, I thought it might be fun to take a retro ride of former Batmobiles, the most iconic vehicles to emerge from the super-universe. Over the years, the cars have changed dramatically as have the actors who have played Batman. Here's a quick primer.

First up is the TV action series version of Bruce Wayne's clandestine wheels. Producers used a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car as the basis and chose this car because of its bat-esque looking curves.  Although the ABC series lasted from 1966 to 1968, the car lived on. With orange and red-tinged trims, the car is instantly recognizable at traveling auto shows and parties.

A more modern and sleek Batmobile came out of the bat cave for the 1989 Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. This elongated muscle car was based on the Chevrolet Impala chassis. It also rode low to the ground. Bat lowrider? The car also had a retro Art Deco-look to match this darker, grittier interpretation of Gotham City where 1992's Batman Returns was also set.

Hollywood rolled out a new Batmobile for 1995's Batman Forever, which starred Val Kilmer as the dark knight and Chris O'Donnell as young Robin. This roadster, which also had Chevy roots with a 350 high-performance engine, looks like a giant version of a kid's remote control car.

And yet another Batmobile briefly emerged in 1997's Batman and Robin starring George Clooney and again, Chris O'Donnell. Like it's predecessor, this was a roadster with a Chevy heart. Where is that Chevy Batmobile dealer?

The latest Batmobile pulled into theaters in 2005's Batman Begins, the first of a trilogy starring Christian Bale. This is the most dramatically altered Bat car known as the the tumbler. The bulky versions used in these films look more like modified tanks, Hummers on steroids or futuristic military concept vehicles with a detachable bat-pod motorycle. The estimated mpg can't be too Bat-friendly. Where's the Bat Prius?

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Sniffer Test

There's a new report ranking which cars are among the least-toxic when it comes to that infamous new-car smell. (And I thought that smell was a good thing!) The Ecology Center tested vehicle parts such as dashboards, steering wheels, seats and other areas we commonly touch to see which areas gave off chemicals (bromine, lead and cholorine) that could affect our health (allergies, cancer, learning disablities.) Of the 204 cars tested, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic ranked as the least-toxic.  The study's worst scorers: Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and Kia Soul. To see which cars ranked where, read the rest of the report here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

2012 Honda Civic Review: Civic Minded

The 2012 Honda Civic is a cute but somewhat bland compact sedan. It's like that so-so/semi-cute girl/boy at a party. You notice them because they are there but then your eyes quickly shift over to  something that is better dressed, more stylish and with better curves. In auto speak, that would be the new Hyundra Elantra, Ford Fiesta or Chevy Cruze.   You quickly forget, the Civic who?

I borrowed my friend's Honda Civic for some test drives for this unofficial auto review.

The ninth generation Civic LX four-door provides all the basic comforts you might need in a little sedan. This package comes with a sunroof, Blue Tooth, power windows, locks, A/C. The bolstered, microfiber seats suck you in once you plop your bum inside the car. 

The car's futuristic instrument panel sits on a dual-level so you can watch the digital speed monitor flash your speeds of 55 mph and up as you whip and weave on Interstate 95 between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Just to the right of the speedometer is an electronic IMID (intelligent muti-format information display) which reminded me of an iPhone that designers custom-built into the car. The display tells you how much gas you have, how far you can go and provides directions to where you're headed thanks to a nifty navigation system. An auto iPhone. 

The driving is nimble and smooth. You don't feel bumps on the highway or on torn-up Miami roads from endless construction projects because the car deftly absorbs the shocks. The 140 horsepower, 4-cylinder engine has just enough zip to pass cars without hearing the engine w-h-i-n-e. You can also easily squeeze the car into a parking space off Lincoln Road in South Beach or parallel park off Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale and yet still have a few inches over between you and the other cars.

Wind-noise was minimal when we weren't blasting Madonna's unappreciated new CD, the Scissor Sisters or some groovy techno beats.  The car was quiet enough to let my friend pass out and snore (he will deny this) in the passenger seat after a night out. As he caught his ZZZs, I had fun playing around with the various features. Front windshield wipers swiftly whooshed back and forth in an hypnotic motion. The radio was easy to use whether I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel to boost the volume or switch stations or by doing it the old-fashioned way - reaching the radio console.

The body: The sihouette of the car looks as if designers used the 2001 Honda Accord Coupe, sanded down the hood and rear and shrunk it in length for a Civic. (I have a working theory that Honda recycles old Accord styles for newer Civic models but that's another blog spot.)

This Civic's front windshield is slanted in such a way that you feel that you can literally touch the road in front of you. This also provides great visibility. From front to back, the Civic's profile is a clean sleek aerodynamic line. The backseat is also comfortable for a man who happens to have dark brown curly hair and who is 5-foot-10-inches tall and 175 pounds.  There was plenty of leg room in back there, which is great for long trips to Disney World or Key West.
Fuel-consumption was a mixed message. My friend says he gets about 28 mpg in mixed city/highway driving or 24 mpg alone in city jaunts. That's a let down from the 32 mpg city/highway combined fuel economy he was hoping to get. "It's not as fuel efficient as advertised,'' he said. "If I had known that, I would have paid a little more and opted for the Toyota Prius."  The Civic's fuel tank only fetches him a total of 218 miles and that's with the special ECON mode which helps reduce gas consumption. You expect more for a gas-friendly reliable car that has ruled as el rey of the small sedan market for decades.

Simply put, the car looks nifty but it doesn't stand out from the pack of more polished looking competitors (the Elantra, the Fiesta, the Cruze).  "The Civic looks better than previous models in that it's not trying to show off,'' my friend said. Overall, the Civic is a cute sensible little carrito. Great to get around the city and for longer commutes from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.  So far, it hasn't given my friend any issues.  Still, he has Prius envy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

June car sales roar

2012 Ford F Series was the top seller in June.

Unexpected lower gas prices and renewed interest in new car models helped boost  US vehicles sales 22 percent in June from last year. Overall, 1.285 million total vehicles (including cars and light trucks) were sold last month domestically.  Toyota and Honda had the biggest gains (60 percent and 48 percent) with their flagship cars the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord fueling sales. For more information, read this article in USA Today.

Here is a list of the most popular models and their  June.figures.

Sales of the Toyota Camry surged for the Japanese auto giant.

Ford F-series 55,025
Chevrolet Silverado 33,566
Toyota Camry 32,107
Chevrolet Malibu 31,402
Honda Accord 28,924
Ford Escape 28,500
Honda Civic 27,500
Toyota Corolla/Matrix 26,647
Ford Fusion 24,433
Dodge Ram 23,951


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ambiguously Gay Wheels?

Are there gay cars? In the new issue of South Florida Gay News, a weekly newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, there's an article called "Top Five Gay Cars...For Contrarians" which lists five cars to consider for gays and lesbians looking to stand out from the auto pack.  Their suggestions: (2012 BMW 6-Series; 2012 Suzuki Kizashi; 2013 Cadillac ATS, 2012 Kia Optima and the 2012 Jeep Wrangler J8 Pickup)

It got me to wondering, are there cars more popular among gays and lesbians than other drivers?
When I lived in Boston for 10 years, I noticed that most of the gay men I knew usually owned a Volkswagen Jetta or Golf/Rabbit. (Actually, my ex and I both owned Rabbits. I had the white bunny one. He still has the emerald green one.) Jeep Wranglers were also popular with the gents, particularly older fellas on Cape Cod. I also noticed that Subarus as well as VW Beetles provided popular among lesbians in New England.
Down in South Florida, I know a lot of gay men and women who prefer those little auto squirts known as Mini Coopers. (You can squeeze into any parking space in South Beach) while my big Cuban family in greater Miami seems to be partial towards Nissans (Sentras and Altimas.)
 For the record, I own a Jeep Compass (photo to the left), a sporty small SUV wagon which my dealer in Boston told me proved more popular among women than men who prefered its fraternal twin the Jeep Patriot which resembles the rugged former old-school Jeep Cherokee). So I have broken away from my own pack but I used to own a Jeep Wrangler in Boston and Miami.
So what say you, is there such as thing as a gay car?

The most obvious candidate would be the two-seater vehicle that was driven by super heroes Ace and Gary, better known as The Ambiguously Gay Duo, a cartoon that regularly appeared on NBC's Saturday Night Live.  But then wouldn't that make their car an ambiguously gay one?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Welcome to cardiction!

NASCAR champion. Car designer of the year. Pulitzer-prize winning car critic. I am none of those things but I do have a passion for cars. Before I discovered my love of writing and reading, I already had a love  - cars. Growing up in South Florida, I often marveled at the cars that whooshed by me on I-95 or Alton Road. Whether they were cherry-red Corvettes and basic Chevettes or flashy Porsches or pedestrian Pintos, I compared and contrasted their distinct stylings and shapes. I was a car geek. Still am.
Whenever a car show rolled into Miami Beach, I was there, reading the new-models brochures, comparing MPGs and snapping photos of the cars that I liked.  I don't know when this auto affair started exactly. Perhaps it was when my dad would take me out on Thursdays and Sundays (his days off) in his sky-blue 1973 Chevrolet Caprice or later on in his 1978 Grand Prix. I admired the sleek lines of these cars and their engines' mechanical purrs. On his days off, he taught me how to check the oil, clean the battery terminals and refill the windshield wiper reservoirs and radiator. In junior high, I subscribed to Popular Mechanics just to read about the latest models including the cute, tiny Ford Festiva in the late 1980s or the muscular Mustang 3.5 GT.  I counted the days until I could get my driver's license so I could finally experience life behind the wheel of the cars I had admired from afar.  I never lost this car curiosity. Anyone who knows me that I can talk non-stop about car models, topsellers, and why some cars sold and why others didn't, why their marketing worked or failed. Perhaps it's in my car DNA: my male macho Cuban cousins are mechanics and cars are our common language. I even watch old 1980s movies just to see the cars roaming the streets then.
So I finally decided it was time for me to come out of the garage and start writing about my cardiction because, well, this is fun for me.
What will I write about in this cyber auto showroom?  Like a customized car, this blog is a work in progress  I will start with a little of everything. Tributes to cars I have owned over the years; mini-reviews of current models such as the Honda Civic, the Nissan Altima, the Jeep Compass and the BMW X3 (vehicles I have access to thanks to my friends and family). I will also post auto news with a popculture sensibility and link news articles I have written about cars from my days at The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe and now the Sun Sentinel. Now and then, I will highlight a unique car that I have spotted in my regular travels in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and there are plenty in South Florida.  To the right are car links that I regular read.
This is my cardiction blog. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

(Photo above: me and my old Jeep Wrangler. One of my favorite vehicles of all times.)

My first car: the 1982 Honda Accord

 It was my worst-best car. The second generation 1982 Honda Accord hatchback was my first car, a belated 17th-birthday gift from my parents in Miami Beach. The first time I saw it, the car was parked, with all its glorious small dents, in the driveway of our home. No one was around when my friend Kellyn and I discovered the car but as soon as we peeked through the window, I knew this was my car. It spoke to me. Sky-blue with a whoosh Accord logo written in italics on each side. The smallish hatchback looked sporty, cool, contemporary despite being 8 years old. Something about the word "Accord" sounded important, unique. I couldn't wait to drive it. I just had to figure how to drive a stick-shift. But after a few starts and stops, I nailed down how to switch gears without that annoying grinding noise and I hit the roads of Miami Beach. With its 75-horsepower engine, the car provided me a smooth ride with enough pep to speed down Pine Tree Drive or whip and weave on Interstate 95.
 A navy-blue velour material sheathed the seats that seemed to suck you in. The shag carpeting tickled my feet. The AC was icy cold blowing my curls of dark brown hair. Whenever I pulled away from a greenlight, the car carried an electronic hum, reminding me of a futuristic exhaust of a spaceship.

Although the car was heralded as one of the most reliable in the US, my used vehicle with some 70,000 miles, had some car quirks and I knew we I were going to have to work together if we were going to stay in this for the long haul.

When it rained, it literally poured inside the car. Sealant problems plagued my front-glass windshield. I used napkins to dab the wet spots that pooled on my dashboard but my uncle/godfather patched that up for me. Another time, when my high school lunch-bunch friends piled into the car, a rattling sound followed us as we left the school lot.

 The car dragged the muffler like the end of a Just-Marred chain of cans. We didn't make it to Burger King that afternoon and my dad gladly took care of the repair. Although I lived and hung out in Miami Beach, I had trouble leaving the 33140 area code. The car's temperature spindle would inch into the red zone if I ventured over the causeway to the Miami side or if I idled in traffic too long. I replaced the clunky radiator. When the car did work properly, it sparkled and I beamed just as brightly whenever I pulled into my driveway, my high school parking lot or at The Miami Herald building where I was an intern penning a weekly column titled "Friends and Neighbors." The Accord meant independence and I felt that spirit whenever I started the engine or paid for my own gas at the local Amoco station. This was my Accord and I could deal with all the minor auto warts I had inherited from the previous owners. The car liberated me. I felt like I was growing up, becoming a man. Too bad the Accord didn't last through high school. The car only survived two months in my hands. After making a McDonald's run with Kellyn on Thursday afternoon, I collided with a rental car driver and my Accord spun down NE 30th Street off Biscayne Boulevard like a dreidel. (No one was hurt but we still can't account for the missing medium chocolate shake that I had in my hands.)

Post-crash, the car sat lifeless, its rear folded in crushed like an accordion. I felt the same way. A tow truck dragged the car back home where an insurance adjuster eventually declared it a total loss. Until it was towed away to a car cemetery, I sat in the car each day, my fingers grazing my weathered steering wheel as I relished my short-lived adventures this vehicle gave me. Then it was gone. Over the years, I've seen clones of that light-blue Accord. When I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I often saw an identical car (but with lots of rust) parked on side streets in Harvard Square. I was often tempted to leave a note for the owner to say "I used to own a car just like this high school. I am glad to see that it's still running for you." More recently, I saw another copy zoom by me in Miami's Little Havana. Whenever I see my Accord's double, it's as if a ghost from my past, my teen years, another time, dashes by. But I like to think that my old car may have been restored by someone and that it's out there somewhere in South Florida giving another owner the pleasure it gave me for those two sweet months.

That's me with my 1982 Honda Accord parked outside a friend's apartment building in South Beach. Check out the dents.

(The top two Honda images above were original magazine ads and brochures for my model.)