Cars Driving Family

End of the driving drought

Every once in awhile, during a typical workday, I’ll come up from my basement desk and look out at my car sitting in the driveway.

Recently it was covered with a fine mist of yellow pollen, which is easy to spot from that vantage point; harder when you’re up close. Then it was small leaves blown around by early summer winds and rain until they took up residence on the windshield wipers, on the door frames and in the crevices of the side mirrors. Every other car in the neighbourhood is dealing with the same affliction. This stuff would, of course, blow off if we drove a bit.

When the pandemic first hit and we started staying home, traffic slowed to a trickle. Our street connects two east-west routes in Toronto and while it’s hardly a major thoroughfare, it’s typically busy. It was eerie to see it so silent in those first few days and weeks of lockdown.

It’s fitting though that the most recent drive I took was to bring my daughter to her first Covid-19 vaccination. A 33-minute drive away, just over 27 kilometres. Traffic was substantial on the highway but given that it was mid-day and many of us are still working from home, where are you all going?

The answer could be nowhere. Throughout the winter and last fall, and last summer for that matter, a drive became a thing to do. Let’s just drive downtown and see what’s going on, we’d say. Knowing that there’s probably not much of anything happening. The streetcar would be crawling along its tracks and people would be walking, sure, but the typical weekday and weekend crowds were non-existent.

Look, there’s my office (now closed as we await a signal that all is clear to return to work, but in a new location). Is Brandy Melville open? my daughter would ask. Yes, but with strict capacity limits and an inevitable lineup outside.

When were kids, our parents would once in a while take us for a drive. Usually on a Sunday evening and only in the summer. Sometimes we’d convince our father to take us to our favourite park in Paris, Ont. For my sister and me at the time it probably seemed exotic (it had a twisty slide. We had to make do with the regular straight slides in the parks in our neighbourhood.) But I remember the thing we seemed to do more often was drive along country roads. My father, as we would come to know, thought of himself as a farmer stuck in a stock broker’s suit and the country drives were an attempt to get back to his rural roots (and routes).

Between that long ago then and this suspended now, a drive was replaced by a commute. Which was punctuated by trips to see friends or family a few hours away. Those were in turn replaced by road trips–to New York, to Myrtle Beach, to Orlando, to Athens, Georgia. Trips that were defined by being behind the wheel, moving across the pavement putting kilometres behind us as we looked ahead to the many more to come. Stopping as strangers in some locale and greeting others who were doing the same thing.

But the aimless drive? That just didn’t happen. Until at least we were cooped up in homes/offices rarely going farther than the grocery store (which became at first an expedition in itself: Gloves? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. Mentally prepared to stand in line? Check.) But we needed to get out. Somehow. Anyhow. The idea of a drive became both entertainment and escape. Forgotten were the hassles of traffic, aggressive drivers, construction-induced gridlock.

Now, as I come up from my basement office and look at the car in my driveway, I remind myself that automobiles are made to move. Humans are too. And once in a while we both need to exit the driveway and let the wind take the dust away.

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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.

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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 the Subaru BRZ Sport-tech RS

If you spend any time at all fighting urban traffic, just a small dose of a car like the Subaru BRZ can remind you that driving used to be fun, and can be fun again.

This is the Sport-tech RS version of the BRZ, which means it’s a bit sportier and techy-er than just the run-of-the-mill BRZ.
Here’s how it’s described by Subaru:
“An all-new trim introduced for the 2018 model year, the Sport-tech RS builds on the fun-to-drive BRZ by adding Brembo performance brakes at all four corners, as well as SACHS performance dampers and 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels.”
Apart from some interior upgrades like black-on-black leather and Alcantara seats with red stitching and a prominent BRZ logo that rests right between your shoulder blades, the Sport-tech RS is fitted with a six-speed manual transmission — the only transmission available.
The BRZ Sport-tech RS is, of course, equipped with a Boxer engine — this one’s a 2.0L DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder, capable of producing 205 hp at 7,000 RPM.
There’s also an easy-to-use a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone compatibility, which is all-new and also available on all 2018 BRZs.
That’s pretty much it. And that’s OK because the BRZ is a no-frills car that is meant to be driven, meant to remind you that driving is supposed to be a fun, engaging experience.  The bolstered racing-style seats are comfortably snug and remind you how important it is to feel you’re in the car, not on it (as you can so easily feel in an SUV.)
The engine makes a pleasing roar when you start it. It doesn’t take much to get the BRZ up to speed and this is a car that loves corners, remaining fully planted but easy to handle. There’s also plenty of power in the low-end RPM range.
On the downside, the touchscreen can be overly sensitive, but that’s a minor quibble. As much as I love the interior design of the car, I don’t love the exterior. To me it could use some more rounded, muscular fenders and the grille and headlights look like they don’t fit with the rest of the exterior design. Plus, the rear visibility is hampered by the beefy C pillars but that’s partially offset by the rearview camera.
This particular Subaru is not about to compete with anything from Porsche or Ferrari, obviously. But, it is a rare small, no-nonsense sporty car that can make you feel like a real driver again.
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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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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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Racing’s dark days

Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi is in critical condition after a crash at Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, and I’m wondering, again, why I’m a fan of auto racing.

According to media reports (here and here) Bianchi’s Marussia left the track at Turn 7,  the same location that Sauber’s Adrian Sutil crashed a few laps earlier, with just nine laps to go in what would be a rain shortened race. Bianchi’s car collided with a tractor that crews were using to move Sutil’s car. Bianchi, 25, underwent surgery and was being moved to intensive care, where at the time of this writing, his condition was listed as critical.

At  its best, racing for me has always been about watching drivers put their considerable skills to the test; about technologically advanced machines that might, just might, make their way to my driveway someday; about high drama and minute details that could spell the difference between winning and losing. And even from my earliest days of being a teenaged fan, and before I began writing about the sport, racing drivers seemed to be colourful characters. Not just jocks, but people who had real opinions and weren’t afraid to express them. People like Jacques Villeneuve, Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe to name just three.

Then, someone gets seriously hurt, as happened this weekend. Or worse, as happened this summer and has, unfortunately, happened many times before. People are mortal. Race car drivers are mortal. And sometimes bad things just happen to good people.

But there’s more to it than that. Incidents like the Bianchi crash raise more questions than answers and make me, and probably others, question why I watch auto racing and why I’m interested in it. Why do I give my tacit approval of the risks that racers take? Part of the answer is that I still believe that there should be a place for risky behaviour in the sanitized, controlled world we often find ourselves living in. Yet it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for a sport knowing that something terrible could happen at any moment. Still, for some, and I’ve counted myself among them, that’s precisely why they go to races or watch them on TV.

As Road & Track‘s Marshall Pruett points out auto racing is facing a battle for relevance, apart from any concerns around its inherent dangers. Racing fans are getting older and fewer younger people are interested in the sport; TV viewers are down. I suspect that when non-fans hear about another racer being injured they might wonder why the sport still exists at all.

Am I being too pessimistic? Maybe. But it’s better to consider questions like these instead of not acknowledging them at all. As fans, we owe at least that much to people like Jules Bianchi.