Friday, December 17, 2010

Initial impressions - 2011 MINI Cooper S, MINI Countryman ALL4, and VW GTI

I have been driving a Honda Pilot for the last 7 years.  I leased one when we opened the Corner Kitchen and then leased a 2007 when the first lease was up.  My business partner Joe had a little laugh when I came back from the Honda dealer with a new Pilot that was the same color as the previous one.  I guess if it ain't broke...

The Pilots were both bulletproof, comfortable and able to haul a lot of stuff/people when needed.  The problem with the Pilot is that it is not as fun to drive as I would like.  I have not really worried about that too much over the last few years (and don't really now) because utility has been more important than clipping apices.

Recently, however, I have found myself looking for a car that makes more sense in terms of fuel economy and that is also fun to drive.  Most of my driving is done in 2-3 mile jaunts to the grocery store, to pick up supplies for the restaurant, or to pick up the kids.  In general terms, it is not the best way to use a mid-sized suv and get decent gas mileage.

Since I worked for Kyrus in 2003, I have been interested in the MINI Cooper S.  In fact, while I was working in Taylors, SC, I would run over to the new MINI dealership on my lunch break and drive the new Coopers.  The salesman was very friendly and would just let me take off for a test drive.  I drove both the regular Cooper and the hotter S version and liked them both.  I remember bringing home the quirky brochures and planning which color combinations I was going to pick.  But it was not the time to get another car so I just sort of forgot about it and went on with my life.

This past weekend, Amy and the kids were kind enough to go with me to Century MINI in Greenville and Amy also went with me to Deal Motor Cars in Asheville to test drive possible replacements for the Pilot (at least in day to day driving - the Pilot will still remain in the stable, so to speak).

The first car we drove was the brand spanking new MINI Countryman ALL4.  This car/crossover is the newest vehicle in the MINI lineup and the one we drove was the first one in Greenville.  It is considerably larger in stature than the Cooper S or Clubman but still retains the same turbocharged 1.6 liter engine.  The car has four doors, the interior is roomier than the other MINIs as well, and the dash is a variation on the "lots of varying sized circles" theme that has been part of the new MINI line since the early 2000s.

The Countryman had an automatic transmission with paddle shifters on the sport steering wheel.  Not my first choice of drivetrains, but a good chance to see if the paddle shifters were a viable alternative to the 6-speed Getrag manual transmission.  Getting in and out of the Countryman is worlds easier for four people than in the Cooper S.  The four door thing kind of helps with this.  The leg room in the rear is also greatly improved.  The rear bucket seats are adjustable fore and aft and the car is wider than all other MINIs so it feels gigantic in comparison.  General fit and finish of the car is excellent and the switchgear and handles all feel substantial.  (The hatch release is the round MINI emblem that also serves as a handle a la the Volkswagen Golf and GTI.  The handle here is much more substantial than the one on the VWs however.  More on that later.)

There is a central "rail" as MINI calls it that runs from the front console to the rear seats.  This rail will take accessories like cup holders, eyeglass holders, and many future gadgets that haven't been thought of yet.  It is also lit from inside with colored lighting that can be changed from red to yellow to green and everywhere in between.  One problem I see is that any number of things (change, keys, wallets, pencils, etc.) will end up in the nooks and crannies of this rail system and it will be a bear to keep clean.

I won't go into a lot more detail about the look and size of the car other than to say it may satisfy families with kids that would not consider a MINI Hardtop or Convertible and don't really like the look of the Clubman.

Driving dynamics are good.  The motor is peppy and the handling is pretty good.  The automatic transmission does a bit of searching for the next gear and there is some lag when really flooring it away from a stop or while cruising.  The paddle shifters are really just a gimmick as far as I am concerned.  There are of the push/pull variety meaning you pull either of them toward you to upshift and push either one away to downshift.  (Most more high performance cars use the more normal right paddle upshift and left paddle downshift).

Paddle shifting is probably just fine in a Ferrari 458 where the double clutch and the Formula 1 based gearbox makes the shifts in milliseconds.  In the Countryman, it is just a way to be involved in the shifting that just takes up time that could be better spent focusing on driving.  With that said, the acceleration seemed less peppy than in the Cooper S I remembered driving several years ago.  And the handling seemed less crisp.  Overall the car seemed quite a bit softer all the way around than the Cooper S.  Amy and the kids, however, loved the space and the cool factor of the car.  A nice step up in size without completely alienating the MINI faithful.

Now on to the Cooper S Hardtop.  Getting in the backs seats was not a lot of fun for my son (6' tall) or my daughter (who has never ridden in a car since she can remember - we have always had SUVs).  The front seats do not suffer from that problem.  I am 6' 1" and there is plenty of headroom and legroom for me even with the seat not fully extended into the back seating area.  The steering wheel and pedals are right where they should be.  The wheel is adjustable both up/down and in/out and once set, it felt perfect.

The dash layout is a little disconcerting at first.  There is a huge speedometer centered on the dash and not tilted toward the driver, so it is far from the most usable object on the dash.  Centered in front of the steering wheel is the analog tachometer and a digital speedometer.  So in general you can ignore the dinner plate sized speedo to your right.

Accelerating away from the dealership, the whole manual transmission experience became one of complete pleasure.  I haven't driven a manual stick in 6 years and it felt like I had been driving this car for years.  Something akin to putting on your favorite pair of jeans.  Bottom line is that this car is a complete blast to drive.  The acceleration is really solid but not the kind of thing that will get you in trouble immediately like a Porsche Turbo would.  We kept the car below 4500 rpm as asked by JD at Century but the car still moved out when pressed. The handling is quick and accurate without being jerky.

We pulled into an industrial complex to get our bearings and I spent a couple of laps going around two light poles in the parking lot.  To say this was memorable seems silly, but it was goofy fun and just made me smile from ear to ear.  One thing we noticed was that if you hit a rut in the road that is more than a crack, the car can be very loud.  This is a bit alarming - enough so that we actually stopped once after hitting a pot hole to make sure we hadn't punctured a tire or cracked a rim.  I have read this in other reviews and now understand.  The suspension is not rough in any normal road conditions, including bumps and small ruts, but certain pavement abnormalities will let you know this is a sporty suspension.

By the time I got back to the dealership, I knew that I would not be happy with the Countryman after driving the Hardtop Cooper S.  The utility is much less.  The back seat is very tight (but I have ridden there and can stand it even with the seat all the way back to my legs).  But the car is so much more fun to drive and feels so much more like a sports car than it probably should that I think it would make up for the smaller size.

To be fair to myself, a couple of days later Amy and I went to Deal Motor Cars in Asheville to drive the Volkswagen GTI Mk 6.  It is larger in all dimensions than the Cooper S.  It has the history of being the first real performance hatchback in the United States 25 years ago.  It had gone through several iterations including some that really diluted its sporting character but in the last two versions has come back closer to its roots.

We drove a two door version with cloth seats.  The first thing I noticed was that the GTI does not ask you to sacrifice as much in terms of space.  The front seats are supportive and the cloth is nice and grippy.  The rear seats are very comfortable for me and the rear cargo area is considerably bigger than that in the MINI.  The GTI has a 200 hp turbo 4-cylinder and this car had the 6-speed manual transmission.  The Mk 6 (2011) version also has a dual rear exhaust and minor body changes that make it appear more aggressive than the last several year's models. 

The fit and finish were good, but the quality of materials seemd lacking.  The hatch release I mentioned at the beginning of this blog is a good example.  In the MINI Countryman, the release is hefty and solid feeling.  On the GTI it is light and cheap feeling.  The dash controls also seem  to be from a cheaper parts bin than those in the MINIs.  I have watched VW hover near the bottom of virtually all the consumer reporting agency's lists in terms of reliability for the last few years and maybe this is partly the reason.

The driving experience is pleasant and will satisfy a lot of people, including, I'm sure, many of the GTI faithful.  The car is relatively tight and the acceleration is snappy.  There is more lag in this turbo engine than in the Cooper S so you have to plan ahead a bit more if you want to make the most of a curvy road.  If you stay on the boost, the car is pretty fun.  The transmission is nowhere near as precise as the MINI gearbox.  The handling is good but again not nearly as razor sharp as the MINI (although more sporting than the Countryman). 

For daily driving, the GTI is a nice car.  Sporty but pretty darned practical.  VW also makes a four-door version that I would like to drive as well, but Deal did not have any on the lot the day we went.  The thing is, the fun factor just wasn't the same as with the Cooper S.

If we were going to take a family trip, we wouldn't take either of these cars.  We would just load up the Pilot and go.  So since I am looking for fun and a hint of practicality, I have to choose the Cooper S Hardtop over the Countryman or GTI.  It is like having a real sports car with the added utility of a back seat and a (albeit small) luggage compartment.  Add in the fact that the Cooper S gets 36 mpg on the highway and you have a pretty green package that is light years ahead of your basic Prius in the fun to drive department.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

First night in Montreal - dinner at Lugano's

Our hotel in Montreal is not really in Montreal, but in Laval.  It's kind of like being in Buckhead and saying you are staying in Atlanta.  After all day in airports (and even a little of the day in planes) we were starving and looking for a place close by visit for dinner.

Matthew is a big advocate of Urbanspoon and decided to see what he could find in Laval.  One of the first places that came up was an Italian restaurant called Lugano's - the reviews were good and, to make things better, it was only 1/2 mile from the hotel.  We headed out, found the place in a local strip mall and headed in with few expectations.

The manager seated us right away - it was Sunday night after all - and we settled in, looking forward to a glass of red wine to start.  The server asked if we had brought any wine and we said no but we would like to try some.  Lugano's does not have a permit to serve wine or beer but you can bring it in and they will serve it for you - no corkage fee applies apparently.  I didn't get into the details of the local alcohol permitting with the server but we just had some Perrier and ordered.

In short, the food was outstanding (I don't think it was just because we starving) and the server was friendly and informative.  She had a reasonable command of English and was more than happy to welcome us to Canada.  I had a salad with grilled chicken (I know - I am extremely adventurous), Amy had linguini with seasonal vegetables and a white wine tomato cream sauce, and the kids had pasta with tomato sauce and quattro fromage pizza.

Sometimes its the little things that make a meal above average.  In this case, the chicken on my salad was tender, fresh and hand cut, just like we do it at the Corner Kitchen.  This seems like a small thing but it is one of the things that separate a bowl of protein and mixed greens from a nice grilled chicken salad with fresh field greens. Matthew says the pizza was the best he's ever had (and he loves Nona Mia in Asheville and West First in Hendersonville so that is high praise).  Amy loved her linguini and it was good enough that I helped her finish it off after eating my dinner.

The place is decorated in a way that tells you it is Italian without having red checkered tablecloths and bottles of basketed chianti sitting around.  There are grape wines strung throughout the rafters and nice silver and a sort of Italian farmhouse motif that feels pretty authentic.  The music is Italian and I don't mean Dean Martin.  It was true Italian tunes sung in the native tongue and set just the right mood.

There is a sister Lugano's in St-Hyacinthe.  It looks like the place has it's share of locals eating and enjoying (their own) wine so they must be pretty consistent.  We may go back again while we're here so that tells you something. A really nice experience all the way around.

Monday, June 21, 2010

On our way to Montreal!

Yesterday was Father's Day and I spent it with my wife and children.  I did not spend it with any of the fathers in my life - we did that on Friday night and it was really a great time with my Dad, my father-in-law Hank, and my stepdad Mack.

The difference is that we spent this Father's Day heading to Canada for a week in Quebec.  The flight out of Asheville went off on-time and without a hitch.

Once we got to Atlanta things got a little dicey.  We boarded our flight to Montreal and were getting settled in when the captain's voice announced that there had been an accident with the cargo door and we needed to wait about 30 minutes for maintenance.  30 minutes later he said we would have to wait another 35 minutes for approval from Montreal for us to take off.  Then we got the announcement that we would be deplaning.

This is never a good sign.  Apparently one of the Delta workers had driven a luggage cart into the side of the plane and put a dent in it (so much for his next evaluation).  The dent had to be measured and sent to an engineer for the plane manufacturer for his verdict on whether that plane could take off.  I don't know about you, but if I am counting on an engineer to say yay or nay on me taking off in a damaged plane based on a description, measurement and, possibly, a photo sent to him on a holiday Sunday, I would rather have another plane, thank you very much.

Someone else must have thought the same thing, because we got word that we would be boarding another plane - two concourses away - in 45 minutes.  All in all, well done by Delta in solving something for their passengers that could have caused everyone a much longer delay.

The flight was great, the descent into Montreal was pretty cool with towering clouds and the view of the Olympic Park out the window.  The queue to get through customs was enormous but went really quickly.  The walk to Avis was not bad, but then Murphy stepped back in.

I showed the Avis desk clerk my reservation, he got busy with the paperwork and handed me the bill to sign.  It was not $281 like I had originally been quoted but was now $1000.  He commented that the taxes were really high in Canada and I had upgraded - for $70 - to a full-sized car but the extra $700 seemed excessive.

We went round and round with him getting a bit frazzled with the reservation system and finally getting the price down to only three times what I was originally quoted.  Long story short, I called Avis US and they helped us figure out how to make their system charge correctly.  Actually, in computer terms, I think he brute-forced the price into the system.  We will see how things work out when we pay the bill in a week.  Somehow I think I may still have to fight for the price, but won't worry about that now.

We got a new Chrysler 300 (with 5 km on it) and set out for our hotel - Le St. Martin in Laval, Quebec.  We got there with little stress - I had update the maps on my GPS and it worked like a charm.   Famished, we looked for a local restaurant (really any place with a menu would have been OK).  Next post, I will let you know how Lugano's was.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

It Might Get Loud - Blu-ray Review

I keep up with very few podcasts religiously, but two that I like are This American Life and Filmspotting.  Filmspotting is produced by two guys in Chicago and I really enjoy listening to their takes on recent films and their marathons featuring classic films.

One of the films they liked in their year end lists was It Might Get Loud, a documentary featuring Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White - the three guitarists of, respectively, Led Zeppelin, U2 and the White Stripes (Page and White have both been members of other bands over the years as well).  It Might Get Loud is produced by Jimmy Page and centers on a get together in a huge warehouse of these three distinctive guitar talents.  Each is shown separately before arriving at the site and each has their own take on what might transpire during the filming.  Page, with his flowing hair and Yoda-like zen attitude, seems happy to see what will take place since "the instruments will be there as well, so who know what might happen".  The Edge is also curious but a bit more mercurial, and Jack White jokes about the outcome with his dry sense of humor.

Once they sit down, the film just flows.  Each artist is given time to discuss his start in music, how he came to the guitar and how his personal style developed.  Much of this was filmed outside the warehouse setting with each performer having time to visit old recording spots and to show how they experiment with their instruments now.

I have never listened to The White Stripes or the Raconteurs, both bands featuring Jack White, but was suitably impressed by his passion for the roots of rock and roll and his stripped down sound to search out and buy some music from both bands.  I have been a fan of U2 since 1980 but it was still interesting to see the Edge pull out old cassette tapes with 4-track recordings on them and hear the experimental sounds became some of the songs I know and love.  While in high school I became a fan of Led Zeppelin and spent at least a couple of nights in local theaters watching The Song Remains the Same and being enthralled by Jimmy Page's playing, especially his solos on songs like Whole Lotta Love.

Each artist is interesting in his own right.  White plays with an anger and determination to dominate his instrument that seems to come from his background growing up in Detroit.  The Edge wants to get specific sounds out of his guitars using whatever technology is available and Jimmy Page seems to play with an ease that seems graceful at times and gloriously ragged at others.

The hightlights of the film were the times when the guitarists played through riffs and songs that we all know by heart.  When Jimmy Page walks through his packed storage room of guitars and amps and picks up a guitar and plays Ramble On, it makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.  As he talks with the Edge and White and then breaks into Whole Lotta Love, the other two guys just grin and Jack White looks like he wants to crawl right into Page's guitar.  White plays on a cheap plastic guitar that he loves and it makes you love it as well.  The Edge plays the layered riffs from Where the Streets Have No Names and then deconstructs it to show where it all starts.

If you like any or all of these guys this disc is worth checking out.  The three generations of rock history are fascinating in their own right.  It could have been more exciting if director David Guggenheim had let the guys really rip into some full-fledged songs a couple of times, but it is still an interesting way to spend an hour and a half.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Avatar - review and 2D versus 3D

I have been a fan of James Cameron's movies since the first Terminator.  Aliens was pure fun (and terror) with just the right amount of visceral testosterone-filled action.  Terminator 2 took everything - special effects, time warped storyline, and Arnold - to another level.  And, boos and hisses begone, I really liked Titanic, then and now.

With that said, I was familiar with all the pre-release buzz for Avatar but could never get too worked up over it.  I trusted that Cameron would do a good job with it and hoped it would be good, but the blue aliens just didn't do anything for me.  Once it was released the buzz got even louder and the reviews were generally good, so Matthew and I headed to the movie with a friend and his son the day after Christmas.  My buddy got to the theater early and bought tickets to the 2D version which disappointed me a bit as I figured this was THE ONE, the movie that should be seen only in 3D.  I was wrong.  The movie was stunning in 2D.

The story of Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who has come to the alien world of Pandora to be an avatar "driver" is pretty straightforward.  At first, he is being used to gather information about the aliens (the Na'vi) in order for the humans to use that intel to help drive the Na'vi off their land so that it could be mined for Unobtainium - the rare and valuable mineral that makes up much of the planet.  Once he gets to know the natives and becomes part of their people (which includes falling in love with the chief's daughter Neytiri) he finds that he must take a side and this leads to an epic battle that will decide the fate of the Na'vi.

The story has been told many times before (think Dances With Wolves in outer space, possibly with more at stake).  It is very black and white - most of the humans are money grubbing businessmen or soldiers with a desire to use their weaponry.  The Na'vi are all noble and in touch with the natural world of their planet.  This is not necessarily a bad thing for story telling (I mean the Empire was made up entirely of ruthless fascists in Star Wars), just a bit simplistic.  Cameron does a nice job in pulling you into the world he created and that is the magic of this movie.  Once Jake is comfortable with his avatar, his exploration of the jungles of Pandora and interaction with the Na'vi become your life for the next 2 hours.  The time flies and I never looked at my watch (either of the three times I have seen the movie so far).

You will either really like the movie or hate the CGI/alien theme so I won't really go any further with reviewing the movie.  There are problems with the film - some exposition that is clunky and some less than smooth transitions in the story ( I am sure there is a dazzling extended cut waiting for a Bluray release next year).  It is not a perfect experience, but it is an exhilarating one and that is just fine.  Great popcorn movies are hard to come by.

The second time I saw the movie was also in 2D (the 3D showing was sold out) with my wife, Amy and daughter Lauren.  They both loved it and I actually got to look at more of the world around the characters that time.  I was impressed even more with the photorealistic landscapes and the dazzlingly beautiful world of Pandora. 

Today, Matthew, Lauren and I finally got to see the 3D version, in the new Regal Grande theater, not in Imax.  Just my impression, but I hate seeing movies at Imax theaters.  The curvature of the screen is completely distracting, but I digress. I was used to the Real 3D glasses from seeing Coraline and A Christmas Carol this year, so that wasn't a real problem.  The problem is that, in 3D, besides the distraction of the glasses at times, there is a real problem with fast motion scenes.  In 3D, the motion blurs those objects that are supposed to be nearest you (or that are to stand out in 3 dimensions).  It's like watching a bad LCD television, worse than that in some scenes.

Also, when there was a bright background I could see wide vertical bands on the screen.  It looked like the screen had been pieced together, sort of like a billboard is.  It was not there in every scene, but in half a dozen at least.  I don't know what technically produces the bands but it is not present in the 2D version of the film. 

In scenes with little fast motion, such as those where Jake and Neytiri are just walking through the jungle, the 3D is outstanding.  This is an action movie, however, so those scenes were few and far between. I credit Cameron with not having a bunch of gratuitous "spear sticking out over the audience" scenes like the 3D movies of the past did, but for me the 2D version was much more satisfying. 

Also the CGI look was much more pronounced in the 3D version.  What was very realistic - the mountains, jungles, waterfalls, etc. - in 2D almost looked animated in spots in the 3D version.  Upon leaving the theater, I asked both kids which version they liked better and they voted unhesitatingly for the 2D version as well.

You may have a different experience, but if you have a choice of only seeing the movie once, I would recommend 2D in a good theater.  You won't regret it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein

In the short time I have had my Kindle 2 I have found that I read more. This may be that the "new" hasn't worn off the gadget yet, or it may be that it is just more convenient to carry around. Either way, I have discovered some great reads from the Kindle Bestsellers list.

One of the books that was a nice surprise was The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

This is his second book and I was intrigued by the fact that is is written from the point of view of a dog, Enzo, and that it was the tale of an aspiring race car driver - something that I can relate to. Enzo, of course, is a nod to Enzo Ferrari, the late, much loved and much missed founder of Ferrari in Italy.

From the start, Enzo tells us about his life with his master Denny and his wife and child. Enzo is wise, caring - and entirely frustrated by the fact that he can't talk and doesn't have opposable thumbs. He loves when Denny talks to him about his experiences on the track, even though they are few and far between due to the fact that he is torn between his love of driving and his love for his family.

At first, I thought the story would be a simplistic tale of how a dog's mind works and his daily life with his human family. This story is much deeper and more satisfying than that. For fans of dogs, redemption and Ferrari, this is a must read. The last two chapters are among the most emotional I have read in years. Maybe it's a guy thing, but the ending is so satisfying to me that I was tempted to turn around and read it again immediately. The fact that I had another book that I was halfway through stopped me.

Check out the reviews at Amazon if you like, but do yourself a favor and read this book.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lauren and Arnold Schwarzenegger

I took Lauren and Matthew to see Terminator- Salvation last weekend. Before you hit me with child cruelty comments, my kids know the difference in what happens on screen and what happens in real life. They also understand that profanity is not the way to speak in polite company (although they may have heard a word or two from me in traffic). So on with my comment.

Lauren only agreed to go when I explained -to the best of my ability - the story and timeline of the Terminator mythology. She liked Salvation ok (it was a decent escape from a Friday afternoon) but when I showed her Terminator 2 she was completely blown away by Arnold as the T-101 that protects John Connor.

By that, I mean she now has a huge crush on Arnold Schwarzenegger. She loves the fact that he will stop at nothing to protect John and his mother. And she likes that he is huge and muscular and only smiles every so often. She actually made me replay the scene where Arnold finds the minigun in the underground weapons hanger and turns and smiles at John - this little crooked smile - and John says something to the effect of "that fits you". It IS a great moment, and Lauren just giggles.

Funny how kids get so jazzed about things like this. It also shows how iconic that role was and how well done T2 was. Her reaction was so much more positive for T2 than Salvation that it made me re-evaluate just how good Arnold was in that role.