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When technology is your co-driver

Drivers and technology sometimes just don’t get along. Take this recent JD Power  study: Customer Demand for Safety Technology Threatened by Overbearing Alerts.The news release highlights the results of Power’s 2019 U.S. Tech Experience Survey. That study found that drivers want systems like lane-keeping assist, forward collision warning and blind spot detection (things that will prevent them from driving into a ditch or backing over their kids’ bikes, let’s say) but they want those systems to stop behaving like a “nagging parent.”

“No one wants to be constantly told they aren’t driving correctly,” said JD Power’s Kristin Kolodge, executive director of Driver Interaction & Human Machine Interface Research, in the release.

While those systems can sometimes be a pain, they can also prevent collisions and correct bad driving. We’d probably be better off taking the time to learn what these systems do and how to use them so we can understand what the chirps, dings and vibrations are trying to tell us.

JD Power’s study measured owners’ experience, usage and interaction with 38 driver-centric vehicle technologies at 90 days of ownership. Singling out lane-keeping and centering assist systems, the survey found that 23% of drivers complain the alerts from such systems are annoying or bothersome. But, more tellingly, 61% of those people say they often disable safety systems like lane-keeping assist.

To me, though, disabling the systems can not only put a driver’s safety at risk, it can make them less aware of how they’re driving. No one wants to be nagged but we can all stand to improve our skills. So, if a driver has a tendency to drift to the edges of their lane and their LKAS system alerts them to it, maybe they’ll begin to pay more attention. Then they can correct their own actions before the system has to remind them, yet again.

Driving a new 2020 Acura RDX has made me more aware of in-car tech. Especially after driving a, shall we say, more analog 2011 Ford Escape for eight years. I now have the AcuraWatch suite at my disposal — including Adaptive Cruise Control, lane-keeping assist, forward collision warning and a blind spot information system. Before that, I just had my own eyes and ears to rely on.

And, don’t get me wrong; I’m still relying on those senses (sometimes too much, if you ask my not-yet-a-driver daughter. She thinks I should be using the rearview camera instead of actually turning my head and looking over my shoulder.) But, I’m not ready to abandon the shoulder check. I prefer to maintain a few physical (analog?) skills that can help augment the digital and technological aids that the car provides.

But, I still appreciate a timely beep warning me that I’m approaching a concrete pillar in a parking garage, or a flashing symbol letting me know there’s another car or a bike or a human in my blind spot. I’m working on seeing them less as nags and more as necessities.

Auto industry Cars Driving Reviews

Behind the wheel of the 2019 Jaguar F Pace S

It can be tempting to dismiss the 2019 Jaguar F-Pace S as just another cushy, high-priced SUV.

It has a powerful engine (a 3.0 litre V6 with 380 horsepower), aggressive looks and a price to match (the S version’s MSRP is $69,900; the gloss black wheels on my review model alone added another $3,570 to the pricetag.)

So, yes, based on those few facts, this isn’t a vehicle for everybody. After all, no one needs a plus-$70,000 SUV. A Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer or Hyundai Santa Fe can pretty much do anything this Jaguar can do. As well, the F-Pace certainly doesn’t have an easy ride within the luxury market. Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and even Maserati and Porsche are all chasing the well-heeled luxury SUV consumer. The competition is as fierce as the animal this brand is channelling.

But I can’t help but like it. What the F-Pace S does well is take many of the elements of a classic Jaguar – power, style and refinement – and recast them in the form of a five-passenger performance-oriented SUV. You ride a little taller but you still feel like you’re behind the wheel of a sports car. And therein lies its appeal.

To start with, the clean exterior lines give the F-Pace a sleek, sporty look. The design is more sport coupe than sport truck.

Inside, the bolstered leather seats remind you that you’re sitting in it, not on it, a pet peeve of mine when it comes to some other SUVs (I’m looking at you, Honda Pilot). It’s a reminder that this Jag is designed for people who appreciate the visceral side of driving. Once you’re behind the wheel, this machine that seemed so large from the outside now seems lean, muscular and nimble. The steering is precise and the handling is impressive.

Controls are laid out nicely around the driver. The 10” touchscreen is intuitive to use and the audio controls are complemented by a plain analog knob for the volume control. There’s no need to take your eyes off the road when all you want to do is raise or lower the volume. Apple and Android phones can connect to the vehicle through the InControl system.

F-Pace controls are oriented toward the driver. Everything is easily within reach and there’s even an old-fashioned analog knob to control audio volume

The dial gear selector, which rises from the console when you start the engine and disappears when you shut it off, saves some interior space but still takes some getting used to. I found that I could turn the dial faster than it could engage a gear. Most of the time that wasn’t a problem, but it did result in a sometimes awkward delay if I tried to quickly shift between forward and reverse, for example, when working into a tight parking spot.

The supercharged 380 hp V6, found only on the S version, is smooth and mostly quiet in Eco and regular Drive modes. Once you engage Sport mode and step on the throttle, though, the Jag shows its roots and the engine comes to life with a roar. There’s a slight hesitation as the horses get ready to run but the takeoff is impressive nonetheless thanks in part to the Jag’s generous helping of aluminum within its Lightweight Aluminum Architecture. Jaguar says this F-Pace can go from zero to 100 km/h in 5.5 seconds. (Switching into Sport mode also changes the interior accent lighting to red from green, which is pointless but, I admit, still kinda cool.) Keep in mind that roar comes with an increase in fuel consumption, although after a week of combined highway and city driving, the F-Pace S returned a respectable 11 litres per 100 km.

The S version has a range of high-tech driver aids available. Among others, our tester had Head-Up Display, which shows information like speed and navigation details on the windshield, directly but unobtrusively, in the driver’s eye line. Active cruise control uses the set cruising speed but adapts to keep a pre-set distance between you and the vehicle directly ahead – handy for long highway drives and a feature that adds a layer of safety without you even knowing it.

The F-Pace S has ample space your stuff and a sleek cargo cover keeps it hidden from prying eyes.

The cargo space is ample, with a capacity of 650 litres (fold the rear seats and Jaguar says you can increase that space to 1,740 litres). Of course, there’s also creature comforts like the heated steering wheel (my current favourite automotive innovation) and heated and cooling front and rear seats.

So while the Jaguar F-Pace S is not exactly for everyone, it does prove that in an era of one-size-fits-all SUVs, there’s still one out there that’s built for drivers.


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Driving without drivers

The driverless car began to turn left at an intersection just as two pedestrians stepped off the curb, ignoring the ‘don’t walk’ sign. A warning chirp sounded inside the car and it began to slow, mid-way through its turn.

“Jaywalkers aren’t in scope,” said the engineer in the passenger seat to the engineer in the driver’s seat. “You need to take the wheel.”

The two engineers were part of a Ford Motor Company autonomous vehicle team and the car was a modified Ford Fusion. Taking the wheel immediately brought the car under a driver’s control (although it was never out of control, just creeping through the intersection). I was along for the ride in the back seat with another journalist, getting a sense of how an autonomous car works.

This was a demonstration drive, so jaywalkers and other random acts of traffic spontaneity were not part of the demo. The Fusion was moving on its own, but was not left to drive at random. The maps that live at the heart of its complex software and algorithms and its array of sensors would see to that. As would the two engineers in the front seats.

During a short drive near Ford’s sprawling headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. the car often drove better than a human does. It accelerated smoothly, maintained the speed limit, and stopped at stop signs and red lights. It lingered longer at a crosswalk than an impatient urban driver typically would after a pedestrian (a Ford employee who staged his crossing to show how the car would respond) had crossed the street. But, as one of the engineers told me after our ride, the car will always err on the side of safety, during its development and after. I pressed them on the dilemma of what could happen when the car needs to make a seemingly ethical choice. When it needs to, for example, decide how to best avoid a child who has just darted out – should it save the lives of the car’s occupants or of the child?  They, being true blue Ford employees, dodged the question, saying only that the car would do what was safest.

And to be fair, they, and no one else, really knows the answer to that question or the myriad other questions that surround autonomous cars. Ford sees a future where cars navigate the streets according to downloaded maps and where we might own an autonomous car and a car that we actually drive. Other automakers have different perspectives.

From my driver’s perspective, it’s a strange experience to watch a steering wheel turn without a human’s input, to feel a car move without a human doing anything. But it might be an experience we all will have to get used to.

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Shooting Cars: How to Capture that Perfect Auto Image

Hamin & Honda
Photographer Hamin Lee shooting the 2016 Civic before our test drive

This post originally appeared on the Totem blog

Sometimes, those of us lucky enough to make magazines for a living are asked to share how we shot that image, found that story, nailed down that fascinating person for an interview.

Honestly, how we do these things is no secret, and it’s usually much less glamorous than people realize. Still, it’s often a lot of fun. Case in point: the photo shoot of the 2016 Honda Civic I was involved in awhile ago, the results of which appear in the spring issue of CAA Magazine.

Choose the right contrast to the scene

Hamin Lee, a freelance photographer and his assistant, Mark Luciani, joined me at the Civic’s launch in which journalists could try out the car in and around the Collingwood and Blue Mountain region. Mark and I each drove a car (his with a GoPro camera mounted on it) and Hamin rode shotgun with me, watching the route and scouting for places to stop and shoot. We chose white cars because they would look the best against a variety of natural backdrops, from overlooking Georgian Bay to tree-lined roads to farmer’s fields.

Keep it as safe as possible

Before we set out, we were warned (three times) to obey all traffic laws and to drive safely. It seems some of the journalists who had driven the route earlier in the week had pushed the Civic closer to the limits of its capabilities and had attracted the attention of the local police. A black and white cruiser sat conspicuously down the road from our first scheduled rest stop, visible to each of us as we pulled into the parking lot.

Don’t be shy about getting the best angle

Other than that, the most attention we received was from other drivers, many of whom slowed as they passed, watching as Hamin stood on the shoulder of the road with his camera, shooting the car on the opposite side or trying to gauge which way to place the car to catch the best light in an otherwise empty field. Shortly after, a woman in a Mercedes E-Class sedan also slowed but then pulled away abruptly in a hail of gravel, apparently unhappy that we were inadvertently blocking her entrance to the street. Later, a man in a beige Lincoln Navigator rolled passed us very slowly, eyeing us with his windows rolled down apparently wondering what three men and two white Honda Civics could possibly be doing stopped at the side of the road on such a sunny day. (The answer: trying to figure out how to place the car to shoot evergreen trees behind it, which are more appropriate for a spring magazine than the brilliant fall colours.)

Plan out your candid action shots

Then there’s the challenge of shooting a moving car. We used a few pretty simple methods. As I drove, Hamin would say, “let’s try something here.” I’d pull off the road, Hamin would get out, I’d backtrack about half a kilometre, wait for him to text me the OK and then drive past him at a consistent speed, avoiding the urge to look directly at the camera. Sometimes Hamin would point the camera from the back seat through the window and capture Mark’s car as he drove closely behind us.

But the real secret is…

The best method? The one that shows a car centred in its lane and moving at speed, appearing to come directly at the viewer, with the blacktop rushing by in a grey blur under its wheels? In the interests of maintaining good relations with the local police and not causing undue stress to my great clients, that one will need to remain a secret.

The spring issue of CAA Magazine is available now.



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Race Ready: Inside the GEICO NASCAR Team

This story, for GEICO Now magazine, published for GEICO by Totem, gave me a chance to take a look inside GEICO’s NASCAR team. I interviewed driver Casey Mears, crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker (that’s him on the opening page) as well as many members of the pit crew. I love writing these “under the hood” -style stories. Each member of the crew answered any and all questions and really explained the work they do all while showcasing the bonds that make them a team.



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Driving the Honda Odyssey

Minivans take a lot of abuse. Not just from all the stuff they cart around, the parking lot dings they endure and the variety of bumps and scrapes they put up with from kids, bikes, potholes, etc. They’re also the subject of a great deal of psychological abuse. People love to hate them, even people who own and drive them every day. There are people — and I know a few — who grudgingly accept the fact that they’re in the minivan phase of their lives but still count the days until they can move up into the luxury SUV or sport sedan market.

Now, that attitude says more about the people than it does about their vehicles. But, what gets lost in all that self- and automotive loathing is just how darned practical minivans are. There are few vehicles that can easily haul a lot of stuff and get passengers (kids and adults) into and out of them without a lot of bending or climbing.

Take the Honda Odyssey for example. It’s quiet, powerful, easy to park and easy to enter and exit. Plus it’s loaded with cupholders — which still are, by the way, a key indicator of automotive quality for many people — as well as lots of smart and compact storage spaces.

When I say it’s quiet, I mean that it’s sealed so well that most road noise is blocked out. The engine makes nary a whisper. Sad news for hardcore gearheads, but happy news for people who are trying to carry on a conversation as they drive.

After spending two weeks driving the 2015 Touring (top of the line) edition, the Odyssey felt like a capable sidekick that was able to take on pretty much anything. Granted, the Touring edition, which starts at $48,410,  included pretty much every option available (including the much celebrated, by my daughter and her friends at least, rear widescreen DVD player).

The Odyssey easily holds its own on the highway and never felt like it was labouring under any load, even when I was carting seven girls to a birthday party. That was when the third row seats came in handy. Roomy, but not really meant for adults to occupy them for any stretch of time, the third row nonetheless is a great tool to have in your minivan toolbox.

But another bonus is the configurable second row. Not only can the second row accommodate three child seats, but the middle seat folds down as needed, giving the other two passengers a bit of elbow room. They can also slide fore and aft to give everyone a bit more leg room. And, once you fold the third row down into the floor and remove the second row, you have enough room (says Honda) to load in 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood. Want more convenience? The Touring model comes with a built-in vacuum cleaner.

The driver’s seat was extremely comfortable and all the controls were easy to reach. Another plus of the boxy shape of most minivans means great visibility with very few blind spots. Rear sliding doors on both sides made getting into and out of the van easy, especially when parked in tight spaces.

As important as comfort is, the Odyssey has power to match. The 3.5L V6 engine helped it pull away from stoplights like a pro and accelerate on the highway with no hesitation. Honda puts the Odyssey’s fuel economy at 12.3 L/100 km (city), 8.5 L/100 km. (highway).

The Odyssey is an all-round refined vehicle that serves many purposes. It’s hard to hate, so why not just enjoy the minivan years?

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My week with the Ford F-150

Ford's 2015 F150 is big and tall but also nimble and comfortable
Ford’s 2015 F-150 is big and tall but also nimble and comfortable

I have to admit: I was pre-disposed to like the Ford F-150.

I’ve long harboured the idea that I am, at heart, a truck guy. Trucks give off this ready-for-anything vibe; an “I Got This” attitude. They display a sturdiness and sense of purpose that you just don’t find in a car.

But, the truth is if I had paid the $77,000 price tag for the top of the line Platinum version of the the F-150 that I drove for a week, I’d probably be worried about scratching the paint if I had to load some garbage or scrap metal in the bed (not that I have any of that lying around. But if I owned a pickup, I might drive around looking for some to haul away. I could earn extra money. And if I spent nearly $80,000 on a pickup truck, I might need to. But I digress.)

The 2015 F-150 is a strikingly handsome machine. Inside, the big seats are comfortable and keep you secure and they’re easy to customize. The view from the driver’s seat is spectacular (as is the view through the twin-panel moonroof) and frankly it’s hard to go back to being at road level in my typical family hauler after spending a week feeling like I’m riding above the traffic.

The 3.5 L EcoBoost V6 engine (with six-speed transmission) runs smoothly and the truck feels handles a vehicle half its size when you accelerate from a stop. It pulls away so effortlessly it feels like you’re driving a performance car (with, you know, running boards.)

Speaking of which, the Platinum version has running boards that drop down when you unlock the truck and fold back up when you climb in and close the door. Very cool.

The truck did have its drawbacks however. Given Toronto drivers’ penchant for leaving mere millimetres between themselves and other parked cars, I rarely tried to parallel park the thing, even with the excellent rear view camera and the Active Park Assist system. And parking garages were another challenge. Even though the F-150 was just short enough to enter a garage in Yorkville, for example, its roof gently touched the bottom of the plastic directional signs that hung from the ceiling. And the antenna brushed the concrete ceiling itself. Of course, I realized this after I cockily entered the garage.  As I watched my insurance deductible flash before my eyes, I decided the best course of action was to exit, gritting my teeth all the way, and park unscathed on the street.

One of the advantages of driving the F-150 is that truck guys give you the nod — that acknowledgement that you’re part of a nearly secret club. I had a few from other Ford drivers and at least one from a Ram driver.

As Ford F-series trucks continue to be the top-selling vehicles in Canada, the club of course is not that exclusive. Still, it’s fun to be a part of it, if only for a week.

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NY Times Autos reaches end of the (print) road

As of the end of this year, The New York Times will end its print Automobiles section.

While it looks as though Autos content will continue in some form online, I’ll miss reading the Automotive content in print.

Part of the appeal for me was the print section published the work of great writers like Ezra Dyer and Lawrence Ulrich, who always find a smart away to approach their stories and reviews. As well, with its heritage of great journalism, The New York Times helped to legitimize the oft-criticized field of automotive journalism.

Despite its problems, the Times, to me at least, is the gold standard of newspapers and journalism. Car journalism, however is often viewed as fluff or an offshoot of the auto companies’ marketing departments. Not by the people who produce it, mind you, but by dismissive readers and media critics. Having a car section in the Times, though, gave it some needed credibility. And I’ve always appreciated how that unique Times voice of straightforward erudition was brought to bear on reviews of the Dodge Challenger or the Polaris Slingshot. Here’s hoping that’ll continue on the web.

Here’s the text of a memo that was sent to Times employees regarding the auto section by executive editor Dean Baquet (via Capital New York):

Dear Colleagues,

As I said in a previous note, we are reviewing sections of The Times as part of our effort to cut costs in the newsroom. So I regret to announce that as of the first of the year we will no longer publish a stand-alone autos section.

We will continue covering the automobile industry, of course, as evidenced by our sensational investigative reporting on the ignition switch problems in General Motors cars. And we will run consumer stories in the Business section, including regular coverage on Fridays. The Driven videos will continue online.

But despite sensational work over the years by Jim Cobb and his crew, the masthead and I concluded there is no longer an economic reason for a separate section.

Jim was there 20 years ago when the Sunday section was launched, and he has made The Times proud ever since. In the day, the insatiable demand among print advertisers had the coverage spread across several days, including Sunday. Now we’ll consolidate our print efforts on Friday, while remaining nimble on the web.

There will be opportunities in the coming weeks to single out the great work of Jim, Norman Mayersohn, Jim Schembari, Robert Peele and the many contributors, but let me start here by saying how grateful I am for two decades of imagination and dedication in making our Sunday section the best read in the business.

— Dean

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2014 Jeep Wrangler Sport Review

2014 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler Edition
Jeep has further advanced the Wrangler line with the new Willys Wheeler edition. It maintains it’s classic Jeep-ness with some stylish touches that recall the vehicle’s WWII heritage.

In an automotive world of increasingly high-tech cars and SUVs, it’s good to know that the back-to-basics Jeep Wrangler Sport 4×4 still exists.

The 2014 Wrangler Sport comes loaded with some of the high-tech systems drivers have come to expect in current cars and trucks: electronic stability control, traction control, Bluetooth connectivity, tire pressure monitoring system and steering wheel mounted audio controls.

But, that means there are still a quite a few manual controls to remind you that the Jeep hasn’t forgotten its DIY roots. The 6-speed manual transmission is standard (mated to a 3.6 litre V6 engine) as are the manual windows, manual mirrors and fold-away fog lamps. Plus powering the entire thing is a simple key – no proximity-sensing fob that can stay in your pocket as you push a button to start the engine. You use a key to lock and unlock the doors then place the key in the ignition, y’know, just like in the old days. If you’re really bothered by having to open the doors, you can just remove them. Then once the soft-top is lowered (it’s standard equipment, but a premium version is a $350 option) you’ll have an authentic Jeep driving experience.

Which is what the longtime Jeep enthusiasts are after, according to parent company, Chrysler–just a few frills, but nothing that will prevent them from enjoying the feeling of the open road.

Classic interior style appeals to Jeep purists
Classic interior style appeals to Jeep purists

On the open road the Wrangler Sport performs well. Its relatively short wheelbase and offroad-ready suspension means you’ll feel a few more bumps in the road than you would in a typical car, but you should expect that in a Jeep. The V6 is powerful if a bit loud, but not that thirsty – my week’s drive on a combination of city streets and highways netted fuel economy of 12 litres/100 km. Not bad for a vehicle with the aerodynamic qualities of a brick. On the highway, the Jeep feels solid and centred. Driver and passenger seats are comfortable and allow for a good view of the road, but the rear seats are a bit cramped. The dash and console layout are straightforward but all controls are easy to find and use. The six-speaker audio system was a particularly great feature. Two of the speakers are located in the crossbar above the driver and passenger seats, respectively, allowing for quality sound even when the top is down.

It’s a small perk but it shows that Jeep knows what its owners will place a premium on.

The soft-top means that exterior road noise is more pronounced than on a typical car but it wasn’t as noisy as I expected. The multi-step process to lower the soft top and remove and store the rear side windows was a bit confusing at first, but gets easy after the first attempt.

All this for just under $30,000 (the review model I drove was priced at $29,970, before taxes). Less than many SUVs and performance cars and a relatively small price to pay for the ultimate summer vehicle.

Originally published on Aug. 27, 2014




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2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee review

My review of the 2014 Grand Cherokee, from the spring 2014 issue of CAA Magazine. This was one of my favourite cars of the bunch I’ve driven over the last few months. It’s a big machine that doesn’t feel big from the behind the wheel. As well, my daughter and wife (also known as the usual passengers) loved the heated seats, entertainment system and panoramic sunroof.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Review