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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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The $250,000 Muscle Car Mashup

At first glance, the Equus Automotive Bass 770 looks like a macho mixture of a 60s Dodge Challenger and a Ford Mustang with a touch of Ferrari thrown in for good measure — and that’s exactly the point, according to Ian James, the boutique car company’s “brand ambassador” (and a race-car driver who was at the wheel for this promotional video.)

James introduced the company to a small group of journalists in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show. The Bass 770 (pronounced “base” because that’s the deep throaty sound the 770 horsepower V8 makes) is built by hand in Rochester Hills, an affluent city not far from Detroit. Production is set to start soon and the company plans to make 100 cars a year, each available for US$250,000.

Equus is owned by a “European businessman” whom James says wishes to remain anonymous. He politely refused to divulge any further details — despite repeated questions and reporters who came at the question from different angles — saying only that the businessman was bankrolling the whole thing and wanted to keep his identity hidden. Journalists were skeptical and James seemed mildly amused, repeatedly saying that yes, the businessman truly does exist; the car is truly about to go into production, at an actual facility. He even gave out the address: 2094 Bond St.

“There’s one owner. There’s no management by committee. That’s why we’ve been able to move fast,” said James.

The Bass 770 is aimed at “high net worth” people in Asia, Europe and the Middle East with a taste for American muscle cars; the kind of person “who wants the best and wants to be seen in the car.” That’s why it has borrowed design elements from Plymouth, Dodge and Ford and combined them on one vehicle, with an engine made by General Motors.

As well, the Equus logo is a galloping horse with shades of both Ferrari and Mustang and Equus itself is the name of a luxury car produced by Hyundai. James maintains despite all that the company hasn’t stepped on any of their competitors’ toes, insisting that the car has its own distinct style. “The styling looks different to everybody,” James said.

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Stealing the show

A version of this post appeared on the Totem Brand Stories blog

For the automotive world, winter typically means two things: driving in snow and auto show season.  While the cars are always the stars, the shows themselves are almost as competitive.

The Los Angeles Auto Show kicks off the season in late November, followed by the North American International Auto Show in Detroit (on now, the media preview was last week) with the Montreal Auto Show muscling into the spotlight and running concurrently with the Detroit show. Toronto gets its turn February 15 – 24 when the Canadian International Auto Show marks its 40th annual year.

Despite the Motor City’s struggles and the former Big 3’s troubles, horsepower and sex appeal are still a big part of any auto show.  This year was no exception in Detroit, thanks to the unveiling of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, a 450-hp beast that is loaded with an array of futuristic technology.

But, while the Corvette and other performance cars like the Acura NSX and the Hyundai HCD-14 concept car got the lion’s share of attention, there were two reveals in Detroit that truly reflect consumer tastes.

Honda’s Urban SUV concept and Nissan’s Resonance concept point to a growing and key competitive market for most car companies: the compact SUV – also known as a crossover, or my favourite descriptor: trucklet.

Take a look at the driveways on your street or in any mall parking lot and you’re bound to notice the many Toyota RAV 4s, Honda CR-Vs and Ford Escapes. Each of these vehicles combine car-like handling with varying degrees of truck-like utility, making them useful for hauling around kids and dogs and groceries. Equipped with four-wheel drive, they can also prove handy in a snowstorm. Plus, that 4×4 capability gives them a touch of attitude that you just can’t get from a minivan, even though the minivan is truly the perfect vehicle for hauling kids and dogs and groceries. That’s just one reason why crossovers are so popular – automakers know that we consumers don’t always buy cars for the most practical reasons.

Crossovers have an interesting lineage. The sport utility vehicle boom was led by the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee – both big, brawny, thirsty machines. Gradually the SUV segment expanded into smaller vehicles that have nearly come full circle back to being cars again, and many look like long lost descendants of the old station wagons that pre-dated the SUV boom in the first place. Two key examples are the Subaru Forester and the redesigned 2013 Nissan Pathfinder.

Honda and Nissan believe this segment still has legs (er, wheels) and are aiming the Resonance and the Urban SUV concept (one assumes it’ll have a catchier name when it hits production) at young city dwellers. Honda’s machine will be smaller than the CR-V but not quite as small as its subcompact Fit “making it the ideal size for navigating both crowded city streets and open mountain roads,” says Honda.

The Resonance, assuming it makes production, will carry five people and be powered by a hybrid electric drivetrain. Hybrid and other alternative powertrains are important as automakers look for ways to win over urban consumers and meet government fuel economy standards.

Many of us like to think we’re more Corvette than Caravan when it comes to our choice of vehicle. But small trucklets could actually be one instance where automakers’ need to sell more small, fuel efficient cars might align with our desire to look cool while we ponder heading off on the road less travelled.

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Is racing still relevant?

I asked myself that question as I watched the closing laps of Sunday’s Bahrain Formula 1 race – an event that became a lightning rod for protesters who say it was simply a PR exercise by the ruling Sunni party to mask its totalitarian regime.

Media reports said many F1 teams were “quietly uncomfortable” about taking part in the race but went ahead with it anyway. It appears of the drivers spoke little about, or even acknowledged, the protests in Bahrain, adding fuel to those who criticize them as pampered automatons.

Oddly enough, Bahrain was a pretty good race, in the sense of diminished expectations that most of us have for an F1 race. The pole-sitter won yet again, in this case it was Sebastian Vettel, trailed by Kimi Raikkonen about three seconds behind. There were some daring passes, pit lane miscues and some pretty impressive driving, which is not always on display in F1.

Still, I wonder how relevant F1 and even auto racing in general is anymore. It’s murky at best whether new technology used in race cars finds its way into road cars; the environmental cost of burning through barrels of fuel (NASCAR switched to unleaded fuel only in 2008) and piles of tires is rising and younger generations are less interested in driving, let alone racing.

So what becomes of it? I still believe that it’s important in our often sanitized world to appreciate those people, like racing drivers, who push the boundaries of control and put themselves at risk for the sheer joy of taking that risk. But is that risk worth it anymore? Haven’t all the boundaries been pushed? Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like the environment and human rights?

I don’t expect Formula 1 team owners, sponsors or drivers to have all the answers. But, if they hope to have a sustained connection to their fans they need to at least ask themselves those questions.

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2012 Nissan Juke Review

The 2012 Nissan Juke crosses several automotive categories

The Nissan Juke is a true crossover. At first glance it looks like a sporty, two-door coupe—until you notice the nearly hidden rear door handles. It also has the deep wheel wells and tall profile of a small, Jeep Wrangler-like SUV. And that’s the point. The Juke crosses over different car categories (compact car, crossover/SUV, sports car) to create an almost entirely new style of vehicle.

The base model SV with front-wheel drive is priced at $19,998. The Juke version I drove was the AWD model, which starts at $26,778. All four trim lines are equipped with a CVT (continuously variable transmission). Unlike CVTs on some other cars, the Juke’s is quiet and doesn’t drone at higher speeds. The 1.6-litre, 4-cylinder direct injection gas engine is turbocharged and provides strong acceleration and ample power, even in “Normal” mode. Two other engine modes are available with the push of a button on the centre console, Sport and Eco. In Eco mode, the engine’s power is reduced slightly to maximize fuel economy–perfect for a short daily commute.

The Juke’s exterior design is striking. Four headlights give the impression of two sets of eyes keeping watch on the road. Two of those eyes protrude longitudinally from above the front fenders with two circular lights below. But the design also creates some challenges. The low, sloping roofline that looks great from the outside also makes the back seat feel cramped, as does the way the cabin narrows towards the rear. A child can sit comfortably back there, but an adult would feel cramped on longer rides.

The interior design could use some work too. While the navigation/audio system is easy to learn, its buttons are small and hard to use while wearing gloves. Also, for a car that boasts such a high-tech look and is fitted with an array of toys, why are there no power adjustable seats? It seems odd to use a key fob and a start/stop button; change your driving mode with the push of a button and then resort to using a hand crank to adjust the seat. Speaking of the start/stop button, it’s located in an awkward location behind the windshield wiper stalk, making it hard to access without hunting around for it. Same goes for the switches for the heated seats. They’re located between the front seats in the centre console meaning the driver has to reach down and back to turn them on and off, taking their eyes off the road while doing so.

The rear backup camera (standard on the SL trim levels) is a great feature, even for a small car like the Juke. The cargo area is small, but is nicely concealed by the cargo cover and tinted windows.

Overall, if you’re looking for a family hauler, this isn’t the car for you. But if you’re looking for a small car that’s sporty enough to feel like a sports car with available AWD and the tall stance of a crossover, look closely into the four eyes of the Juke.

(This review was originally published on 01/27/12)

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Giddy up. My new dream car is a truck

I’ve decided I want a Ford Bronco. Not the bloated monster-truck style Bronco or even the bouncy Bronco II, but the square Bronco from the mid-seventies. The one with the small tires and wheels that made it look like it was hiking up its pant legs to wade across a creek. It’s the simple design and square, rugged lines that appeal to me, and to others like newsman Chris Gailus, who, with his Bronco, was the subject of the “My Car” feature in Friday’s Globe Drive. A 1976 Bronco was even featured in the auctions section of last month’s Automobile, where a nicely restored one sold for US$37,000. And it’s also the choice of some hipsters, particularly those with a taste for classic American style and design.

I think what we all like about the Bronco are its clean lines and overall simplicity, because let’s face it, simplicity is not often found in new cars. To me, it’s a classic that’s not a classic of my father’s generation but of mine. And, like the new Range Rover Evoque, it’s a cool truck that can also be considered a really cool car.

While I still want a Porsche 911, if someone were to appear at my door and offer me a choice of a new 911 or an old Bronco, I’d take the Porsche. Then I’d sell it and buy a slightly older Porsche. Then I’d take what’s left over and buy a Bronco.

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Volt, Sonic star in Detroit

Some early news from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit: The Chevrolet Sonic made its debut and, to no one’s surprise, the Chevrolet Volt is the North American Car of the Year. And, the newly revamped Explorer is the truck of the year.