Posted by: joevanderfluit | May 6, 2017

Repaying Prometheus: Kennedy Space Center

Do you know who ruined my early education? Not the architect of the system that foisted cursive writing upon me; not Ralph Klein for defunding us so badly the globe in the library and most of the maps still had the USSR on them; not the legitimately psycho fifth grade teacher. It was Roman Emperor Constantine. That jerk converted, dragged the rest of western civilization with him, and made the stories in religion class way more dull than they could have been. What stories did I get? Some carpenter fed some people with some fish. St. Martha made him snacks once and one of the St. Johns got him wet. And yeah, the same woodworker got (ironically?) nailed to some wood which is pretty Metal; and he cured some lepers which was thoughtful yet unimpressive given I can do that with a bottle of pills from the store. But the Greek myths? Now there’s some entertainment that school kids would eat up. Who has time to hear about that time Yeshua of Nazareth talked to a taxman in a tree while Zeus was turning into animals to have sex with women? Who themselves got punished by Zeus’ jealous wife? And a dude was maze-running against a man-eating bull-man? It’s all awesome pulpy drama between lecherous, debaucherous, petty douchebags. And that’s the most important bit: the gods are total jerks and humans are better. Arachne was a better weaver than Athena; Diomedes beat up a bunch of gods (including the god of war) in the war with Troy; Heracles accomplished twelve impossible tasks; and Odysseus survived Poseidon making his trip home a decade-long pain in the ass. Humans could outsmart the gods; and that’s what we’ve done. Wild plants and animals have been tweaked into staples of ludicrously high nutritional yield. Plagues have been eradicated. We’re fiddling with the fundamental building blocks of life to make all sorts of crazy stuff from bacteria that eat plastic to algae that make fuel to tiny dogs that fit into purses. Every July 16th, in my own private madness, I celebrate the day in 1945 that divine wrath became an utterly irrelevant concept. The “Gadget” of the Trinity test showed that man could break apart atoms – that man himself had made – to vaporize a city in but a flash of light. God can threaten the flame of hell all he wants; man packaged it and dropped it out of airplane.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to Prometheus. The titan stole fire from the Olympians and gave it to humans. Zeus chained him to a rock and had an eagle eat his liver every day, only for it to heal every night and for the cycle to repeat. Gross and cruel, but perhaps understandable if Zeus knew we’d tame and train fire for a few millennia, then jam it into a metal tube with a mortal in the pointy end and send the whole works roaring up through his living room. While he was trying to get busy with something else that’s not his wife, probably. Irritating for him I suspect, but pretty awesome for the rest of us.

Rockets are cool, is the point I’m making here. So cool that I’d use money for winning Employee of the Year to fly off to Florida for a couple of days to see Kennedy Space Center. The place where we lit the sky on fire going to places we have no business going._SAM0322

It was truly chicken soup for my soul. A soul eroded by the world’s unwillingness to fully adopt division of labour. See, and pardon moi Français, but I am simply done giving a flying fuck about politics. I don’t care. I’ll do my due diligence and submit my ballot but I refuse to ever mention it again. If that makes me a bad citizen, whatever. It’s all a stupid popularity contest that divides people into an argumentative mud-like slurry. No matter my choices, driven by whatever values I have, someone somewhere will shout me down for it. Applying cold, comforting, sensible logic, the only winning move is not to play and to allow those that do care to have at it. (Evidently, as hear about it all the goddamned time in every goddamned place, plenty of people are willing to, so I don’t feel the least bit bad.) Which is why it was so refreshing to sit in airport terminals and watch planes come and go, and to get into a rental car, switch on the radio, and hear Cuban music instead of the dreaded words “Conservative caucus”. It was a long due opportunity to unplug from the bizarre world in which factions of otherwise civilized people descend into toxic vitriol while fellating whichever smarmy smiling sack of fetid rotting dicks cashed in enough of their humanity to ascend the ranks of the glorified middle-school social ladder that is politics, and just go look at neat things smart people made. O, and what things they made.

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Atlantis. Atlantis is what they made. And she is a thing of such breathtaking majesty I literally had tears in my eyes as the movie screen lifted away to show her posed in glory, the idol of this temple of man. Where ever other spaceship before (and now since) is little more than a cramped truncated cone, this machine was the next giant leap for mankind. This was a striking white thing of winged elegance against the backdrop of cold space. It wasn’t just the pointy tip of a rocket; it was a habitat and a workshop and a thing that could soar through the air on the way home with grace and poise. She did not crudely ride parachutes into the ocean like some dollar store green army man. She could fly.

Atlantis is the prettiest damn thing I have ever seen.

She lounges there on her pedestal like a marble goddess of antiquity. Of course, she’s taken a beating, plated in a hodgepodge of fabric blankets and mismatched tiles, rolled in thirty years’ of soot and grime; and aerodynamically speaking she’s a bit of a brick. But this is what the rational part of the brain knows, and he’d been garroted, drowned, dismembered, and buried in an oil drum out in the back forty by another bit. The bit that saw the name “Atlantis” stenciled on the side. The other old pedantic part knew that name came from an old-timey vessel of discovery, a sailing ship of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. But the five-year-old who once held in his hands a toy space shuttle remembered something more. He remembered that he looked at the included sticker sheet that read “Columbia” and “Challenger” and “Discovery” and “Atlantis” and “Endeavour” and for reasons only a five-year-old can fathom stuck on “Atlantis”. That name and that shuttle stuck in his head and his heart as the pinnacle of wonder, intelligence, ingenuity, bravery, curiosity – the very core of humanity that kid has seen in Homo sapiens for all these years. Atlantis, that glorious machine, is beautiful because she is the human spirit, wrought physical.

She is a thing that went charging face first – on a pillar of fire – into the lifeless howling dark, and then had to dive back into a scorching inferno to get home, despite her frankly shocking fragility. That is as human as it gets. For a species that can be killed by swallowing a bite of snack food incorrectly we’ve been utterly unstoppable, putting hands and feet and eyes in the very last places we should be. It was suicide to come down from the trees; it was suicide to leave Africa; it was suicide to venture onto the oceans; into the depths; into the sky; and eventually into the freezing deadly void of space. But here we are, delicate, complicated things thumbing our noses at the “natural order”.  That’s what Atlantis did, thirty-three times. She, like her sisters Challenger and Columbia, could be brought down by no more than a cold day or a piece of foam; her violent launch described in a quote from an engineer as “…bolting a butterfly to a bullet”. Yet she could withstand 215 decibels of sound pressure on ignition; accelerating from 0-28,000 km/h straight up in eight minutes through the burning of 1.75 million kilograms of highly explosive fuel; the vacuum and -100°C chill of of low Earth orbit; and the stresses of supersonic atmospheric flight heating her hull to 1650°C. She was one of us: paradoxically shockingly fragile and astonishingly resilient, skewed to the latter by intelligence and ingenuity.

Atlantis was the first shuttle to send a spacecraft to another planet, and did so twice. Magellan left her hold to map Venus; Galileo to study Jupiter. She captured and serviced the Hubble Space Telescope, and did the most heavy lifting in making a permanent home for mankind in orbit with the International Space Station. She was a movie star, appearing in both Armageddon and Deep Impact. A ship after my own heart, she lived to the mantra of “simplify and add lightness”, losing the ability to draw power from the ISS and forgoing the long-duration plumbing upgrades given to her sisters. She was the truck of the fleet; a hardworking girl that kept at it until after all her sisters all retired. In 2011, when her wheels stopped for the last time on the KSC runway, Atlantis hung up her rockets and took up residence in this cathedral of human achievement, taking tribute from those that come to thank her for going in peace for all mankind.

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Atlantis does not rest alone, either. On the ground floor, behind glass in a hall bathed in gentle blue light, her fallen kin accept their mourners. Fourteen cabinets of personal items, a fuselage panel from Challenger, and Columbia’s windshield frame serve as a humbling reminder that we always have something left to learn; that the march forward is not easy; that there still be dragons over the horizon; that we’re still at the heart of it a bunch of monkeys straying where we don’t belong. Earth is the jealous sort; she doesn’t like it when we defy our place in nature and definitely doesn’t like it when we slip her surly bonds entirely. So she sent a message and dealt she shuttle program a couple of black eyes. But humans have a long, glorious history of ignoring what she has to say. It’s what we do and in our nature to send a louder message back; to the planet itself, the annoying laws of gravity, the old gods, or whatever else we think may be listening. Once upon a time we did exactly that, and that strongly worded letter was just down the road.

Six miles by bus from the rest of the visitor center, a gigantic building houses another vehicle, a monstrous titan of a thing that, when seen, defies all preconceived notions of what is possible. The Saturn V._SAM0264

Where Atlantis is a thing of beauty to behold, the Saturn oozes a tingly sensation of pure furious power. It is the ultimate in nerd rage, George McFly taking that swing at Biff where Biff is a 5.97×1024 kg rock and George is every white-shirted, horn-rimmed, narrow-tied, slide-ruled guy sick and tired of being held down by 9.8 meters per second2 of acceleration into the core. The loudest, most powerful, fastest vehicle wrought by the hands of man to take that fire stolen from the gods and to put it where even they couldn’t: the Moon. And then just to show how humans roll, they’d eventually squeeze in a quick game of golf and bring along a car. Every specification of the beast is staggering. A quick application of Google-Fu reveals that the Saturn V rocket is taller than the tallest building in my hometown, a sixteen storey building, by more than two hundred feet. The first stage burned 13,500 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen per second. Each of the five main engines on that stage was fed by a turbine fuel pump that generated 55,000 horsepower. At full throttle the fuel pump system alone made more power than an entire nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier at full steam. The fifth engine had to be shut down early to limit acceleration to four G – equivalent to the force you’d feel in car going 0-144 km/h in one second. The solid-fueled Launch Escape Tower meant to pull the Apollo crew module to a safe distance if something went wrong made almost double the thrust of the Redstone rocket that put Alan Shepard and later Gus Grissom into sub-orbit. The estimated deadly blast radius of the fueled rocket in the event of an accident was set at five kilometers, and on the first launch its ferocious low-frequency noise damaged buildings well past that. Clearly, this was the thing that showed the gods who was boss now. Though not without a fight: Apollo 12 was struck by lightning at least twice on its way up, scrambling its telemetry and guidance. Which, with a skyscraper-sized 3 million kilogram bomb built to give stuffy arrogant gods an almighty slap in the face, is kind of an issue. An issue that was solved with the flick of a single obscure switch. SCE to AUX. No big deal. Because people are pretty awesome.

That’s why I had to go. A pilgrimage of unshakeable faith; not in bronze age fairy tales but in Homo sapiens. Because I’m sick of division and fear. I’m sick of it being 2017 – forty-eight years since man went to the moon – and we still argue about race issues and gender issues and just so many other things that we need to solve because we’re better than this and there’s so much more out there to challenge us. If I don’t live to see another human land on another celestial body I swear – not to god but to Man – that I will haunt this earth until our stagnation consumes us and we fade into obscurity and extinction on a tiny blue rock in the remote ass-end of the galaxy. But I don’t think we will. Because humanity is awesome. Except Constantine. Jerk.

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Posted by: joevanderfluit | September 5, 2016

MINI Cooper: Lovely Fing, Innit? Part II

So obviously, I quite like my Cooper. Love it, in fact. But, I say with a heavy sigh, that did not make the breakup from the Little Purple Beast any cleaner or easier. Like James Hetfield once put it, “…then it comes to be/that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel/was just a freight train comin’ your way”, the Miata chose its moment with vicious precision and absolutely ripped my guts out while I was thrumming with excitement, minutes before I parked her for the last time and removed my plate and left to pick up the MINI. Taking a page from Transformers, she spoke through the radio by cuing up “Here’s To Us” by Halestorm. The last time I drove the car I loved so dearly, I had to contend with the most bittersweet song sung by the best, gravelliest, smokiest, sexiest voice in modern music remind me of the mutual feeling me and that battered hunk-o-junk had: “…Stuck it out this far together, put our dreams through the shredder. Let’s toast, ’cause things got better. And everything could change like that, and all these years go by so fast; but nothing lasts forever. Here’s to us, here’s to love, all the times that we fucked up. Here’s to you, fill the glass, ’cause the last few days have kicked my ass…” I never heard another song piped through those poor abused, weedy little speakers. I couldn’t. It had to end that way. 7686178464_fdc8ea66c7

I’ve been lucky enough to avoid any serious heartbreak insofar as women are concerned: I got that part right the first time. The cars I’ve owned, though, have always stepped up and filled that void. The black Ranger I haven’t had since, what, 2009 still has her evil, rusty hooks in the cold, bleak depths of my heart. And now the Miata is the same. I mean, I knew well enough we were at the end of our road. The iron oxide cancer was spreading so badly through the rockers that the jack points were compromised, and it was overdue for a timing belt service and probably could have used some tires. And as much as I wanted to not care about it, it really wasn’t comfortable anymore. It just didn’t work. One must understand the pain that fact inflicts upon me. Losing that car feels as much as an ideological defeat as personal loss. I absolutely hate the trajectory of the modern automotive industry. Anything that isn’t a crossover, an overweight blob of a tall wagon on stilts, just doesn’t sell anymore. The Miata and I were waging a war to prove something. That rear-wheel-drive isn’t a boogeyman waiting to kill on the first wet or slippery road. That ground clearance and all-wheel-drive mean nothing in snow, and that tire and driver is what does. That electronics don’t matter and “features” are overrated.

I am fighting a losing war. I refuse to “upgrade” to an automatic transmission while an unstoppable tide of autonomous cars are storming over the horizon. I was forced to capitulate and get something with dynamic stability control and front-wheel-drive. The Cooper lets me soldier on with a manual gearbox and low-slung stance that still doesn’t really need to slow down for corners, but in some way it still does feel like a forced step backward; one that I and those like me cannot afford. I legitimately enjoy driving, being in control of something mechanical and intricate and pretty. I’ve never bothered to care about safety ratings. I see it the same way I see commercial flight: not a chore, but an opportunity to do something conceptually awesome. That makes me one of a relatively few sick individuals. The Miata was one hell of an enabler. So how does the Cooper stack up where it matters?

Engine: The old: 1.8L inline-four; 132 horsepower, 109 lb-ft torque. The new: 1.6L inline-four; 121 horsepower, 114 lb-ft torque. Okay, so these are both pretty much just little economy car motors. By the end the Miata sounded exactly how I wanted it to, with a mixture of legit (new muffler) and gloriously ghetto (holes drilled into the intake) modifications. The MINI has potential but little aftermarket support for anything that isn’t a turbocharged Cooper S. Both cars had no power and, torque? Ha. Funny. The Miata made a noise like an annoyed wolverine but the Cooper burns 75% of the (premium) fuel and doesn’t feel any slower to the trusted old Butt Accelerometer (patent pending). Judgment: dead heat. A slow, dead heat.

Gearbox: Both are six-speed manual. I won’t take it any other way. The Miata truly spoiled me here. Mazda dropped in the sweetest, slickest little gearbox I’ve ever driven. The stick ran straight from the centre console into the top of the transmission; no cables, no linkages. It was the most viscerally satisfying thing. It’s why I like vintage light switches and cocking guns and watches with gracile little gears and hands. The sound and the feel of precise mechanical bits working in concert is my trigger for the James May Fizz. The only gearboxes I can imagine being any more satisfying that that of the Miata are the gorgeous gated Ferrari and Lamborghini units, or the modern art sculpture inside the Spyker C8.

Except that the Miata ‘box is quicker than any gated shifter ever. It was always an absolute joy to run through the gears with but two fingers and a wrist flick. The Cooper’s is odd in comparison. The actual lever is quite long, with a long throw. But considering it runs through some manner of linkage all the way to the front transaxle, it’s still full of mechanical feel and is weighted beautifully. The action is thus slowed down, and ironically feels more like a gated shifter that the Miata’s. But the Miata is the example of how sublime a manual can be. Judgement: Miata. The Cooper’s is fun but the Miata’s is just perfect.

Handling: These two cars are very different though equally rambunctious beasts. The Miata will teach you how to drive with a capital D. Not just point it and push a pedal, but to truly drive. You’ll feel weight transfer and body roll and where grip is and isn’t. Mine had a tendency to understeer with weight on the front and hunker down and take off like a rocket with weight on the back. Throttling out of the apex of corners made the car come alive and I loved it for it. The Cooper doesn’t really care; it likes to be thrown into bends with reckless abandon and will try to lift the back inside wheel off the ground. Unless it’s wet; then the all-season runflats are no-season shit and all bets are off as to what it’ll do, but that won’t be an issue next week when proper summer performance rubber gets fitted. The Miata was sprung quite softly for a sportscar; the MINI isn’t really sprung. The best analogy I can make is that the Miata is Forza Motorsport 6; the Cooper is Mario Kart. Will I miss rear-wheel-drive powerslides and donuts in the winter? Yes, but I’ll be able to do mad World Rally handbrake skids instead. It’s difficult to compare because they’re so different in nature; and even more difficult to determine which is better when both give the same result: a big old silly grin. Judgment: life is too damned short to have something boring so either way I win.

That there is the important bit: that it isn’t boring. It’s different, a baton-pass, a gear shift. Moving from one brand of automotive rebellion to another. I like slow cars, fast cars, old cars, weird cars, beautiful cars, ugly cars. The only think I won’t suffer is a dull car. An autonomous car. The MINI Cooper, with three pedals and a stick in the middle, is my next last stand. So here’s to us.

Posted by: joevanderfluit | August 10, 2016

MINI Cooper: Lovely Fing, Innit?

Once upon a time, in ye olde days of October of 2015, I had reserved a MINI Cooper as a rental car for a long weekend in Seattle. Apparently I missed the “OR SIMILAR” in the fine print; and someone at the rental company thought the rolling malignant tumor sold as the Chevrolet Trax was suitably similar. I didn’t get my MINI. Instead I played Bullitt down the waterfront hills with a damage-waivered subcompact crossover. I’m confident I had at least two of the wheels off the ground at one point or another, as one does when chased by baddies in a black Charger. Fast forward to my birthday, July 3rd 2016. The junction of highway 24 and 22X. The universe did declare that I shall get a MINI Cooper, one way or another, and so the hail the size of golfballs did fall unto my Miata. I filed an insurance claim within forty-five minutes, and three weeks later, (at 1:20 am) I was notified that my little purple buddy was a total loss. I groggily ran through the stages of grief and reviewed the cars I’d flagged as worthy replacements. Later that morning I made an appointment for a test drive and the day following that I had something newer, shinier, and less cratered in the driveway: a 2012 MINI Cooper Baker Street.DSC_0032

Given my last choice of car, the Cooper is kind of an odd duck of a choice. It’s front wheel drive, which is of the devil. It is a hardtop, which is also of the devil. And it has a likely disgustingly heavy panoramic glass sunroof, raising its center of gravity, which is of the devil. It has strut suspension up front and runflat tires. Both works of the devil. It has evils such as traction control and a tire pressure monitoring system. It’s a German-engineered car out of warranty. It may as well have 666 scrawled on its forehead. This car is the devil. This car is also English. But the thing about the English devil?53c0046f0f306c4e649ffc8882211ba6

What can I say? I’ve been in congress with the Beast, and I like it. Hail Satan!

Again, I have to rewind a bit, back to the day when I experienced an epiphany. The day I drove the car that I realized felt exactly how I wanted a car to feel. It was a 2004 BMW 330i convertible. Its handling wasn’t light and manic like my Miata’s was; the 3 was solid and stable. It was second-nature to drive it precisely, to put it exactly where I wanted it, because every control was exquisitely heavy and firm and smooth. Nothing moved without the distinct intent to move it exactly the right amount. Most Volkswagens I’ve driven since are similar, as is the Porsche 911 GT3, but there is something in my DNA that is magnetized towards Bayerische Motoren Werke. Luckily enough for me, in the same way that Mazda resurrected the traditional British sportscar with a Japanese infusion of leakproofing and reliability as the Miata; BMW brought back the iconic stylish and go-karty Austin Mini with a hefty shot of that addictive Teutonic feel in the MINI brand.

Even coming off a Miata, my Cooper’s handling is fantastic. The Miata was a more tactile experience; I could feel everything that car and the road under it was doing through my hands and feet and butt. It flexed and rolled and made loads of noise. It felt like I was heroically hooning the wheels off a vintage racecar every time I drove some banal errand. The Cooper isn’t that. It is a fun park go-kart with a fashionable, shoebox body. I’m not entirely sure it actually has shocks and springs, and the runflats are more or less upsized skateboard wheels, so it also rides like a kart. But that’s not important because it corners like a Speeders Indoor Electric Prokart™. And with modern niceties like air, cruise, tilt and extra fancy bits like the LED mood lighting, heated seats, and bass-heavy stereo it may as well be a Rolls-Royce after the Miata. Plus my legs actually fit properly between the seat and the pedals, so that’s nice. And I’m saving a tidy bundle on gas! Which helps offset the $110 iPod integration cable because BMW part! Yay!

Karty dynamics and mad emm-pee-gees, in a stylish package to boot. I’ve always found the Cooper to be a very attractive car. BMW did the retro craze thing properly when they reinvented the mini as MINI. The classic mini was first a sorely needed postwar everyman’s car that became an icon that transcended social class. It won races while it was driven about town by Paul McCartney, Steve McQueen, Twiggy, Enzo Ferrari…and the working-class dude next door. David Bowie had a mirror chrome one, and Mr. Bean made millions laugh with one. It looked good on everyone. BMW sort of spooned the fashion icon bit off the top and ran with it. It worked. I can’t imagine another car that some working stiff uggo like me can afford that the likes of Elizabeth Hurley or Scarlett Johansson wouldn’t look out of place sultrily slinking out of. It sits like a bulldog, solid and planted with a nice forward rake. The wheels are at the corners where they belong; even if the front overhang on my second-generation car is a bit longer than the true snub nose of the first ’01-’06 Cooper. And the colour and interior flourishes sold me. The Baker Street was one of the three London-themed special editions to be released for the 2012 Olympics: the turbocharged Cooper S Bayswater, the (gorgeous) convertible Highgate, and the non-S Cooper Baker Street – coincidentally enough releasing just in time for the 125th anniversary of the publishing of the first Sherlock Holmes book. Nerdy! The Baker Street came in either black, white, or my brown-beige “Rooftop Grey Metallic” with black hood (or, ahem, bonnet) stripes, roof, and mirror caps. Inside there’s leather seats with diamond-pattern cloth inserts, matching diamond-pattern hard trim bits, and soft trim bits that match the paint outside. It’s lovely. As a Sherlock-goddamn-Holmes edition car should be. Alas, it did not come with a pipe, a deerstalker, or a dear Watson in the glovebox. Nor did it come with a copy of The Italian Job remake, as all these things should.968full-the-italian-job-screenshot

I mean, what car was cool enough for Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, and Mark Wahlberg to use to steal $27 million worth of Edward Norton’s gold? Not a Civic, I’ll tell you that. I keep mentally wrestling with defying the age old lady’s name convention and naming my Cooper “’andsome Rob”. handsome rob

Posted by: joevanderfluit | October 1, 2015

Some Perspective on Air Travel

In a couple of weeks I’m finally going to finish off another part of my odd and twisted pilgrimage. Five years ago, I made the trip to Washington D.C. to gawk at all manner of historic airplanes. This time, my hajj takes me to Seattle for the Boeing 747/777/787 factory in Everett. Now, it really isn’t news to me that humans are very, very good at performing incredible achievements and then instantly becoming jaded and disinterested in the very same achievements. I mean, name the third and fourth men to walk on the moon.

Unfortunately for me I only had one vacation day left when I booked this little trip. Which means to maximize my time geeking out over big things being put together I have to get up at 4am, take off my shoes and metal stuff, and cram into a seat in the very, very back of a propeller-driven tube and get to the coast in time for breakfast. I say this smiling like an idiot, and other people give me a weird sideways glance as they dial 9 and 1, just to be safe. I’m used to it. I’ve been since I learned that most people can’t tell the difference – or don’t care to know the difference – between a 767 and A330, which was many many moons ago. I’ve lived on the approach to an international airport’s runway for almost three years and I still run outside and look up if something particularly loud comes in. I’m content in my own private madness. Until someone like Delta drops a brilliant piece of art dressed as and ad that sparks me into coming on here and waxing poetic for a bit:

Now I want to shake the bleary-eyed, gloomy. miserable folk at the airport until they realize how freaking nuts what they’re doing actually is. Flying. Like, in the sky. I mean, what would our ancestors say? You can chase the sun across the Big Water with a screaming metal thunderbird. Do you understand how epic that sounds? How freaking Metal that is? And yet, we have the audacity to bitch that we don’t get the whole can of Coke. An Airbus A380 can take off weighing over 1.2 million pounds; bringing a certified maximum of 853 people from Los Angeles to Sydney like in ain’t no thing.

There's nearly a metric tonne of paint on there.

There’s nearly a metric tonne of paint on there.

By this point we’ve got a gun to God’s head and are screaming at physics to bite the curb while complaining about standing in line. But that miserable line is the queue to literally do the impossible. A Boeing 777-200LR can take you and 265 of your friends from wherever you are to any airport in the world in less than twenty hours. As in, not even a day. Every soul from history who has ever had to endure weeks or months on a sailing ship or ocean liner or covered wagon owes a tremendous slap to every modern-day whiner poking at their hot meal on their little plastic tray table. Is Economy comfortable 9 hours into a 13-hour leg that started on Tuesday and will end on Thursday and you don’t know what day it is because you’re crossing time zones at 900 kilometres an hour? Well, no, it’s not my marshmallow mattress on a lazy weekend. But it beats the hell out of hardtack and scurvy or bunking with rats in the belly of a steamship or dying of dysentery halfway to Oregon. By all rights that is something we should not be able to do, but here we are. We’ve been wielding hidden forces of air pressure like rogue wizards, buzzing around the sky since 1903 flashing lewd gestures to the birds and the forces that would have our feet firmly planted in the dust and the muck.

Oi, bird! Suck it!

Oi, bird! Suck it!

In 1947 it took an orange, bullet-shaped rocket dropped from a bomber – and the brassiest set of cojones to ever clang together – to poke past the speed of sound. In 1961 a DC-8 – a large, ordinary jetliner – broke the same sound barrier by pointing down a little bit.

Supersonic experimental rocket

Supersonic experimental rocket

Accidentally supersonic plain old airliner

Accidentally supersonic plain old airliner

Every 747 at cruise tickles the underside of the natural speed limit that used to tear airplanes apart. Every passenger shuffling off the jetway should rightly swagger like Chuck Yeager. Or, hell, like the gods of the ancients. Because, come on, you just finished riding a giant metal dragon propelled through the sky by spinning death-blades and fire at a height that is fatal to mortal groundlings.

I suppose there is a measure of pride to be taken in the fact that the utter mastery of the invisible has become one of the modern age’s most tedious tasks. Personally, I’d rather never be not excited when a loaded triple-seven floats back to earth like a leaf after streaking across half the world.

First 777F Freighter Lands after B-1 Flight K64503-40

Leafy.

Posted by: joevanderfluit | July 25, 2015

Regarding the Dents

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I feel that, this evening, I have some explaining to do. I’ve had to do it for more than two years now, and I think I’ve finally collected my thoughts on the matter to sufficiently justify – if to no one else but me – why most prized possession still bears the scars of Alberta’s meteorological scourge. On the afternoon of July 6, 2013 my lovely Miata lost a battle against a storm cell. Considering the size of the hail that fell that day, it fared pretty well. The glass was fine; and any steel body panels were strong and springy enough to take the hits. The aluminum hood and trunk lid, not so much. There were dents.

And even today, they’re still there. And I’m totally fine with it. Which, of course I realize, sounds odd. I am a Car Guy; and one would expect I’d have been on top of that sort of thing. Except, I’ve come to realize that there are as many ways to be a Car Guy as there are cars…to…guy? I’ve ruminated over the issue long enough over enough late nights that I think I know which kind I am. I’m that kind that feels really weird at car shows and museums, and I know exactly when the epiphany happened, or at least started to happen. There was a Calgary Miata owners’ club cruise that included a stop in Lethbridge when I still lived there, so I popped by. And I really didn’t fit in. There was a beautiful, older first-generation car in immaculate British Racing Green; amazing custom tan leather interior; polished wire wheels; the works. It had clocked less than 30,000 kilometers in 20 years. Another lady had a nicely upgraded third-generation car with much improved suspension bits and upgraded intake and exhaust. She commutes in Calgary with a heavy-duty pickup. They all looked at me with a strange expression of wonder and disgust when I said mine was my only car and I drive it all winter. That’s when I had to take one giant mental step back and figure out where I belonged in cardom. I knew from day one, when it was on the lot, that my car wasn’t a show car. Deep scars tore across both mirrors and the paint was worn everywhere. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. I’m not the kind of guy that enjoys lovingly washing and waxing and primping and polishing my car on a nice Sunday. I’m the guy that takes his car through the Co-Op car wash and then drives the wheels off of it every day I can, season be damned.

The strongest memories I have of this car were all made when I was in it: Streaking down a snow-covered road in the early morning on the way to Castle Mountain; there is a Subaru Forester in front. He is going too slow in his all-wheel-drive safetymobile; so I make a move. Down a gear, onto the throttle. The rear predictably slides out but I steer into the slide and do not lift. I pass on the outside in a full Juan-Miguel Fangio four-wheel drift. The driver double-takes at the purple roadster that seems so happy to be so out of its element. December, after work. It is already very dark and the snow is falling hard and heavy. The highway is decent, Metis Trail is not. The right lane is gone. A minivan is buried nose-in up to the sliding door. “Don’t stop, keep momentum, have faith in your tires”. The wheel ruts are getting deeper and they’re too wide. “Do. Not. Slow”. Now a 4Runner is buried in the right lane. Snow is scraping the entire underside of the car. Burly trucks are fighting to keep moving; family cars are in the ditch. And yet the Miata, the most wrong car to be in this evening, won’t quit. The wheels spin but I can feel where traction is and isn’t. 90 minutes into a 25 minute commute I get home safe and warm. Slowly winding up Going to the Sun Road, Glacier Park. Traffic bunches up through intermittent rain as we ascend into the low clouds. The pass peaks, every car in front turns into the visitor centre. I carry on, immediately drop out of the cloud and the ribbon of road is completely empty ahead. 45 miles an hour feels like 145, with a jagged wall on one side and a thousand-foot drop on the other. The car comes alive; hunkers down under power around every bend, “Sacrilege” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs piped in through the iPod. Eastbound on Alberta 1A, just past Exshaw. The road becomes bendy and cambered; the yellow signs say 65 or 55 above the arrows. That means 90. Two sportbikes come up from behind. There are no passing lanes, no turnouts. I don’t want to ruin their run, and I’ve got nowhere to go but faster. Again, the car just comes alive. It wants this. I want this. 55 now means 100. Now almost 120. This is zen. This is what nirvana feels like.  I exit towards Morley when the road straightens, the bikers pass, both flash a nod and thumbs-up and u-turn, and I affectionately pat the car on the dash. “Good girl”.

That. That is why I love cars. I love to drive. I love to hear and feel. This is why I love my car. The joy I get from it has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on how it looks. The very, very last Car Guy I ever want to be is the kind with something beautiful sealed away in a climate-controlled garage for fear of dirt or damage. I just hate that. That’s why I feel some strange breed of personal pride in the dents and dings and scuffs and scrapes my car has accumulated. I want to drive it onto the grass at a Show N’ Shine and rip some donuts, get out and shout that this is my dream; I’ve taken it through heaven and hell, loved every second of it and who cares if it looks like it does?

The Ferrari F40 is much lauded as one of the best driver’s cars of all time. A truly analog animal, it has string for door handles and cheap felt for interior upholstery, along with a fire breathing twin-turbo V8 and no electronics to dilute any of it. Their value continues to creep ever more skyward; three quarters of a million dollars US is now the norm. I’ve seen one in person, up close, in a private collection I am not at liberty to discuss. It was a magical experience to see this legend in the flesh; but what gave me the most joy was the front end: rock chips. Rock chips everywhere. To know that this masterpiece wasn’t sealed in a sheik’s vault but out spitting fire in anger like it was meant to, was to know that there is still good in this world.

There is still much good in this world. Last summer I was invited to a Saturday night meet and it was the one time I felt I met my people. I pulled in next to a work-in-progress Honda Del Sol. Next to that was an even more work-in-progress Mazda RX-7. Then a gorgeous Buick Grand National pulled in beside that. A devastatingly fast Nissan Skyline, non-essential parts rattily held together with baling wire, zip ties, and tape drew a crowd while I drooled over a daily-driven Mitsubishi Evo 4. And everyone had nothing but good words for everyone else. It was after dark; perfect paint didn’t matter. What mattered was that every car drove down there; and everyone loved driving their car there.

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These words from Jezza, Patron Saint of Petrolheads, are truly words I live by. My car isn’t an investment or a show of wealth. She’s just my buddy. A faithful companion. I’ll always fix the mechanical bits as they wear out and break, because that matters. Body dents? Nah. Those there are stories. Every mark means one more time I was out in the best car ever instead of keeping it safe, too afraid to enjoy the thing I enjoy for the reason it was meant to be enjoyed.

Cars are for driving. Sometimes they get beat up. Some people want theirs fixed; I don’t. It’s my way of making a statement; of rebelling against that notion that the only thing good is that which is shiny and new. I want to say that I like mechanical linkages and manual transmissions and not stupid electronic shit that breaks. I want to hear and feel and smell and experience. I want to say I have an old, busted-up Millennium Falcon hunk of junk that’s got it where it counts: the drive. And that’s what I have. Rocker rust that’s held at bay with Flex Seal (as seen on TV!); a top with rips closed with Gorilla Tape; “custom” $10 IKEA shag rug floor mats; and yet with top-shelf synthetic in the engine, 94 octane in the tank, and (for half the year) the second-best snow tires money can buy. She makes me feel like Han Solo and that, friends, is a good way to feel.

Posted by: joevanderfluit | June 13, 2015

Hold On To Your Butts: Let’s Talk Jurassic Park

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It’s a good feeling, sitting here thrumming with excitement on the release of the newest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise. Jurassic Park is something that is, for me, truly, extraordinarily special. I mean, objectively, as a movie it is pretty excellent. But for me – and I would expect so for many others – subjectively, is that it came out at the perfect time to receive the largest possible buff from pure nostalgia that this universe can possibly contain. It was released in the weeks before I turned five years old; a time when the entire length and breadth of my existence revolved around dinosaurs. Now, it must be understood that 1993 was by no means a dark age. But, a disturbingly large portion of dinosauria that existed for kids to consume was outdated. You know the image. Big dopey looking lizard things dragging fat limp tails through swamps. Toys, books, crappy stop-motion videos, education material in schools; there was a lot of around. But Jurassic Park accelerated decades of dogged scientific persistence and but a stop to that nonsense with a giant shotgun blast to the back of the head. Those wizards at ILM and Stan Winston Studios built things which blew my mind – and still do. They didn’t make movie monsters. They made animals. Dynamic things that appeared to live and breathe and ripple with muscle as they moved. Moved, with agility and life. That was something that was totally new. There are two cinematic moments from my early childhood that are indelibly burned into my mind: an F-14 hauling ass off a carrier deck in the intro to Top Gun; and that Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing road flares. I can close my eyes any time, any day and still see that beautiful creature. That was something I’d known from books and plastic toys and glow-in-the-dark skeletons made flesh and blood. That big, heavy gait; heavy breathing; the shifting bulk. Even as a kid, it was so…intuitive that that was what a dinosaur was. A gorgeous seven-tonne kinetic freight train. article-0-2049659A00000578-579_634x422

Any reviewer can talk until they are blue in the face and I won’t give half a damn about character development (or lack thereof) or other nonsense in that movie. They made dinosaurs real and they made their origins sorta-kinda believable, with a timeless soundtrack and vehicles that I still lust after. It’s just something that I can watch over and over again, and even with an adult, scientifically literate eye that kid’s wonderment refuses to fade. (I’m watching it as I write this. The strings just swelled and bam, Brachiosaurus and 21 years on I’m smiling ear to ear with damp eyes.)

That being said, I have not kept my hopes terribly high for Jurassic World. Sure, the other two sequels did much that I like and love. The Lost World: Jurassic Park showed dinosaurs in a more or less integrated, barrier-free ecosystem. The Stegosaurus herd moving through that forest riverbed is a stunning image. My favorite, the Tyrannosaurs aren’t just animals but intelligent, doting parents that aren’t above a drug-fuelled San Diego rampage. Even the (deservingly!) maligned Jurassic Park 3 made the raptors social and deeply intelligent rather than bloodthirsty. And they sorta half-assed some feathers on the males; so at least they tried to keep up with science. But then they laid some turds. Like the glaring plot hole of Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the SS Venture Crew. I assume raptors made the poor sailors, as the kids would say, REKT. But how did they get there and where did they go? Did they jump and swim? Jetski? Are there a pack of raptors loose in San Diego; where after escaping from a maximum-security stockade they disappeared into the underground and help people with a GMC van? That…that may be the best idea I’ve ever written down. And 3. Ugh. You just don’t pull a Spinosaurus out of InGen’s ass and have it snap a T-Rex’s neck. That, sceenwriters, was slapping my idol in the face. Plus, I cannot be the only one who noticed that the USMC invaded a sovereign country to rescue a half-dozen idiots who knowingly trespassed on an internationally-recognized wildlife preserve.

I also take issue with the lengths Jurassic Park 3 and Jurassic Park: The Game went to make John Hammond the Bad Guy. Obviously when I was little I though Dr. Grant was the undisputed hero of that movie but time and experience has changed things. It has come to the point where, if I could choose a movie character with whom to have a drink and converse, it would be John Hammond. That man is essentially me, were I rich and old. His entire motivation is to share with the world his enthusiasm for dinosaurs. He despises lawyers and inspections; and is not motivated by profit. He gathered be best and brightest to make a dream reality, and got shit done. His “…scientists were so concerned with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. But I say why shouldn’t they have? The dinosaurs would be placed into an isolated environment with vast enclosures. Even spliced to hell and back with frog DNA, and thus biologically not much more than theme-park approximations of dinosaurs, it is still more than anyone else had tried to do – which, as far as we know in the movie universe, was nothing. Hammond and InGen did the most remarkable thing imaginable with genetic science; and it was working well enough. Even though “life found the way” and the animals began to breed, they were still contained. Hammond and InGen did nothing wrong. The scary people doing scary work in scary labs with scary white coats didn’t cause the disaster in any way. The greasy sack of dicks that underbid on a job he couldn’t do on budget did all of it. Greed, not science.

There are two gripes I have with the immaculate original Jurassic Park, and the ham-fisted message that BIOENGINEERING=BAD is the bigger one. I feel it helps perpetuate A) the fear of science that is regressing society and B) the false human versus nature dichotomy. If I may elaborate on B: there seems to this belief that humans did not spring from nature; and thus the evolutionary pressures we create are not part of the ever-changing way of nature. Granted, we are tearing through the ecosphere with reckless abandon but it isn’t the first time. It is theorized that many hundreds of millions of years ago aquatic single-celled plant life poisoned the earth with oxygen. Killed damn near everything except for strange mutant archaea that could use the horribly electronegative and corrosive gas in what is basically a very slow combustion process. Long story short, we beathe oxygen. Now, I’m a fan of biodiversity and don’t want us to kill everything as we try to conquer the earth; but I’d like it recognized that we are a process of natural selection; not god’s gift (or curse) to the planet. We have to find a balance between stewardship and our own stagnation, is all.

But item A I mention above gets me frothy and spitting mad. This infectious, idiotic growing distrust of science. I’ll come out and say it: I will always trust someone is a labcoat infinitely more than one in a suit.  I trust the process that puts people in those white coats. I’ve been called smart but I have been chewed up and spit out by the “hard” sciences. Especially biochemistry. It is. Really. Freaking. Difficult. The people that can do it have by undying respect and admiration. If they want to inject me with things it would be for a damn good reason. Like not dying of fucking polio, anivaxxers. They are not Mengele or Unit 731. There is a reason those monsters are infamous. They are an exception, not the rule. Profiteering from it? That is getting paid for doing work that most people cannot do. The way I continue to see things, GMOs are needed for feeing a growing population. We go all organic now, billions will starve. We’ve been monkeying with our food for ten millennia. It is why I cannot take paleo dieters seriously. Wild wheat and barley sucks to eat; so we changed it ten thousand years ago. That’s what we do. It’s why there’s seven billion of us. It’s why we have cute little dogs. I see no difference from a Tyrannosaurs Rex stitched together with frog DNA no different than a shih tzu compared to a wild wolf: we made that, and that is awesome.

My second gripe, as I mentioned? Jurassic Park has altered public perception of dinosaurs for the worse as well as the better. I’ve brought up the better: balanced with stiff tails and whatnot. The worse? Feathers, man. Feathers. The thing the movies call “velociraptor” is very much not. The real one is small; not much taller than a medium/large dog and a bit under 2 meters long. And feathered. They knew this in the early ‘90s but scaried up the raptors into some odd, bald, very large Deinonychus/Utahraptor…thing. There’s the frog DNA crutch, sure. Don’t read me wrong here; I adore the movie raptors. And they had a chance to fix it. Why not just insert some exposition that InGen only used frog DNA to get results fast? That, with the extra time they’ve had, they used avian DNA instead? Poof, feathers, as there should be. The public needs to be shown that this is totally how science works: that it is totally acceptable to realize that things change as new knowledge becomes available. I’d love to see a JP T. Rex as they probably were: kind of downy and fluffy, maybe with some interesting bright plumage.

Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I need to watch a “clever girl” eat a man’s face; then rewind to a big beautiful lady eating the lawyer off a toilet a dozen times, and trawl AutoTrader for a silver Jeep.

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Posted by: joevanderfluit | March 29, 2015

The Fun Stuff: The Joe Review

While I’ve been aware of it for some time, my job has finally provided a concrete proof to myself: I am decidedly not right in the head. I must endure, day after day and week after week, perfectly normal, successful, well-adjusted people walk in and spend rather large sums of money on cars that are the absolute very last thing I’d ever spend my money on, even if a burly Russian fellow had an equally burly gun to my head. That’s not to say our wares are bad in any way. Definitely not. They are perfectly fine for the people who buy them. People who want a reliable, comfortable, relaxing, and somewhat anonymous motoring experience. Now, thanks to a personality test questionnaire thingy I took in one of my U of L courses (I can’t remember which. Kinesiology 10-something maybe?) I have a problem with empathy. I scored 2 of 20 in that section. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise why I simply cannot fathom why anyone would spend so much money on something that gives such a milquetoast emotional experience.

“But wait there a second,” I hear you say. “Didn’t you have a Chrysler Concorde? And a Cadillac El Dorado?” To which I would reply yes. I cannot and will not deny I drove both of those front-wheel-drive numb whales of things. And I liked them for what they were. The Caddy was essentially two leather Laz-Y-Boys with a V8 in the front and it was the best highway cruiser in the world and the canvas Landau top gave it some serious 1970’s Blaxploitation street cred. The Chrysler was, I will contend to the day I die, an elegantly attractive piece of work that was actually fairly sprightly and lightweight for a pseudo-premium full-ish size sedan that could hold, like, seven bodies in the trunk. Not that I ever tried. The point is, both at least stirred my soul probably more than they should have. I just came to realize that small, lightweight, raw, noisy, quick little cars stirred my soul the way an industrial blender stirs high fructose corn syrup and yellow #5.

And wouldn’t you know it, my strange affliction rubbed off on people, so they got fun little rocketabouts recently. Things which are not necessarily “fast” by any objective measure; but fun by every subjective measure. Things which exist to make smiles happen. Luckily for me, they (foolishly) tossed me their keys so I could put on my journalist hat and give them a bit of a review (that counts for absolutely nothing for 99% of the motoring public).

First Up, The Benchmark: 2004 Mazda MX-5 Miata (optional 6-Speed manual)

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Vital statistics: Engine: 1.8L inline-four, 142 brake horsepower (when new), 125 ft-lb peak torque, front-mid engine, rear wheel drive, curb weight 2440 lbs, 50/50% front/rear weight distribution.

Yes, this is my car and as such has a heavy bias working for it. It is not fast but feels like it. It is not “comfortable” in the traditional sense. Ergonomically, it is a sublime driver’s car but a miserable car car. Aside from my legs which are too long for the car it fits me like a glove. The steering wheel sits the perfect distance from me, and with my arm resting neutrally on the centre console the shift knob is in the middle of my hand. Perfect. Every control is within maybe 15 cm of one of my hands. That said, it gets hot in the summer, and the seats are just awful, I’ll admit it. And the lack of cruise control added to the too-longness of my legs means my ankles burn with the fury of a thousand suns after a few hours’ highway cruise. After which I am deaf because of the noise from everywhere. BUT! It does everything right that I want it to. It feels like everything is connected mechanically to the things they control; because they are. The interior has aged remarkably well – but it must be known that a few of my tastes (women’s clothing, BMWs, bootcut jeans) are firmly frozen in 2003. The muffler I put on and the holes I drilled in the air box make it growl like an annoyed wolverine, and the massively beefy bar that connects both sides of the front suspension keeps the front end planted while the rear is free to do fun things like slide. It is my companion. It works with me and I work with it and I have a ton of fun. As I said, it isn’t particularly fast and I have to put in effort to keep any sort of pace going. That effort is what people as messed up as me crave. I can’t have a car I just point. I must drive it.

Arbitrary Review Score: 114 billion/10

 

The Contender: 2006 Mazda MX-5 (optional 6-speed manual)

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Vital statistics: Engine: 2.0L inline-four, 167 brake horsepower (when new), 140 ft-lb peak torque, front-mid engine, rear wheel drive, curb weight 2447 lbs, 52/48% front/rear weight distribution.

My Miata is a second-generation model, known as the NB to Mazda internally and to the Miataphile. The original one with the pop-up lights is the NA, the current one the NC. Mechanically, the NA and NB are essentially the same yet the NB is the relatively unloved bastard child of the three. It gained a bit of weight over the NA to appease silly things like “safety standards” and didn’t gain any power while losing both the popup headlights (unforgivable!) and a smidge of interior space (thigh room in particular shrinking from “not much” to “none”). The NC is a clean-sheet redesign and is both a) noticeably quicker than an NB and b) a better, more livable car. It has niceties like steering wheel mounted audio controls, cruise control, A/C, and far, far less top-down wind buffeting than my car. So yes; it is a better car. But a better Miata? I’m not so sure. For one, the dual-exit stock muffler is ludicrously oversized. That little 2-litre should sing but it’s choked in the name of something that car shouldn’t be striving toward: serious, grown-uppedness and dual-exhaust machismo posturing. That said, $200 will fix that with a 7-pound single-tip “muffler” so it barely warrants a complaint.  Interior materials feel drastically cheapened though. Plastic surfaces are much flatter and harder than those in the earlier generation; not that it takes away from the driving dynamics in any meaningful way. And the car certainly feels like it scoots. 167 horsepower is plenty for something that is easily still the lightest available sports car that isn’t a Lotus. So really, it is a perfectly worthy successor in the Miata line.

Arbitrary Review Score: x/0: A number as impossible as this thing only gaining 7 pounds over the NB. Witchcraft!

 

Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ: The Toyobaru Twins (6-speed manual; automatic available but is sacrilege)

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Vital statistics: Engine: 2.0L flat-four, 200 brake horsepower, 158 ft-lb peak torque, front-mid engine, rear wheel drive, curb weight 2758 pounds, 53/47% front/rear weight distribution.

As difficult as I now find it to imagine, Toyota actually built a sports car for two decades. And it was a legitimate, surprisingly dangerous little beast. For three model generations, they let loose the MR-2. Oh-so-imaginatively named for mid-engine rear-drive 2-seater, it brought the truest of all sports car layouts to the masses. And brought with it the sphincter-puckering joy of snap-oversteer to the masses. Go into a corner too fast? You let off the gas, maybe dab the brakes, right? NOPE, says Mister Two and enjoy your backwards off-road safari adventure. That engine nestled down in the middle of the car, behind the seats, meant perfect balance and serious handling chops; but carried the penalty of extreme sensitivity to weight transfer. After a few years of sales figures somewhere between the carpet and the floor of the last MR-2 – more expensive than the Miata but with less space even with two trunks – Toyota killed it off in 2005, and with it any semblance of true sportiness left in the company. Until 2012, when shockingly enough they used their influence as a stockholder of the company that owns Subaru to make Subaru build a sports car to be sold as a Toyota (in Europe and Asia), a Scion (in North America), and a Subaru.

When I first drove this car, I wanted oh so desperately to love it. I really did. Here was a sporty little coupe that the world needed and deserved. I didn’t want to listen to all the naysayers who said it needed more power. They just didn’t “get it”. That’s how I wanted it to be. But alas, there is flaw. Not in the design or engineering or construction, but in philosophy. It is too serious. The Miata has always been about carefree fun. It looks the part and acts the part. It doesn’t pretend to be musclebound and aggressive because that would be silly because it isn’t. But the Toyobaru didn’t get that memo. It is fantastically easy to make the back end slide around. That is what it seems like the design was meant to be: something to gleefully throw sideways at every possible opportunity. It is just so easy to do, and I love that about it. But then, the rest of the car is a bit of a mess. The ride is very stiff and composed. It doesn’t roll a bit in corners like the Miatas do. But that means when you’re not playing Tokyo Drift around a roundabout (at less than the posted limit!) it feels like a serious, frowny adult race car. And it tries to look the part, a jumble of what would be attractive curves ruined by flexy, alpha-male-bro sharp creases and angry-eye lights and gaping maw grilles. It comes across as meant for someone who wants a Miata but isn’t secure enough to roll with the perceived feminine image. The seats are quite nice but the rest of the ergonomics are crap. The shifter is too far forward and there’s nothing to rest your right elbow on. And the exhaust is a tragedy. Subaru flat-fours sound fan-freaking-tastic when allowed to breathe. A well-sorted Subie sounds like it runs on a blend of hate and hellfire. The FR-S/BRZ can sound like that but ships with a gargantuan muffler that both kills that delicious malicious sound and is absurdly overweight. As is the rest of the car. I’ve seen what hail does to the aluminum panels of these cars. They should weigh about 3 Kleenex; not 2800 pounds. That’s still light by modern standards but unless the floor is a quarter-ton iron ingot it just makes no sense. All Miatas are built daintily, to move and flex with the little power they’ve got. The FR-S/BRZ have decent power, but it feels like the car was built for much more. My car very rarely feels underpowered; the FR-S does. It isn’t lively; it’s just stone-faced serious. Which in something this joyfully easy to SUUUUUUUUUPER DORIFTOOOOOOOOOO is a crime.

Arbitrary Review Score: Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III. Was meant to be the chosen one; ended up burning in a pool of lava by Miata-Wan Kenobi’s hand.

 

2013 FIAT 500 Abarth: And Now for Something Completely Different (5-speed manual)

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Vital statistics: Engine: 1.4L turbocharged inline-four, 160 brake horsepower, 170 ft-lb peak torque, front engine, front wheel drive, curb weight 2512 pounds, 64/36% front/rear weight distribution.

This, this does not fit the mould. The other three cars I’ve included here are low-slung, rear-drive sportsters. The FIAT 500 Abarth is a tall-ish, nose heavy, wrong-wheel-drive rollerskate. And if you dismiss it for that, you are fool. This thing is pure joy condensed into corporeal form. It exists solely to be a source of smiles, because that’s all it can be for. I certainly wouldn’t want to attack a track with it. Its driving position feels too high and upright for me (mind I’m used to my bottom scraping the ground) and it feels every bit as nose-heavy as it is. But this little Italian firebrand punches you square in the face with a meaty fist of lovable character. It is a diminutive, stylish city car with entirely too much power shoved under that tiny hood. In the process of making too much power, that little 1.4 turbo makes the best thing about this car: the sound. Oh-ho-ho-ho the music that comes from the pipes. I can speak from experience when I say that this goofy little thing sounds like the unholy spawn of a Ferrari F430 and a Lamborghini Aventador minus the bass. Seriously. It sounds like half a Ferrari V8 or a third of a Lambo V12. It is addictive, intoxicating, and makes me giggle with idiotic glee every time I stand behind one. This car is the wheeled equivalent of The Lego Movie. Stern folk will scoff at it and give gold statues to each other while circle-jerking over something far too serious. Meanwhile, the rest of us are having way too much fun shouting “SPACESHIP!” to care. The Abarth is a tasty little seed plucked before it germinates into the pretentious and overcomplex Ferrari it would have grown up to be. It is the best kind of childish, exuberant glee. It is a message to the world that you don’t care about lap times or clipping every apex. You want to be jostled about with a big dumb grin on your face and noise in your ears as you rocket through otherwise dull city streets. It is how motoring should be. It doesn’t need to be boring. You’re moving at breakneck speed powered by explosions! Whoever made the Abarth happen understands that. They understand me and my affliction.

But it’s still wrong-wheel-drive.

Arbitrary Review Score: Grammy for Best Musical Performance; 9 out of 10 Italian engineers arguing about who put-a the power to the wrong-a wheels, ah? What’s a matter you?! The Cinquecento Nuovo sound-a bellissimo, why you gotta drive the wrong-a wheels?!

Posted by: joevanderfluit | October 28, 2014

Group B: My Anti-NASCAR

As I’m probably known as something of a “car guy”, I think it surprises people when I balk at the thought of NASCAR and then go into frothy tirades about how I dislike it so. Oh sure, I wasn’t always this way. When I was little I liked NASCAR just fine, especially the meanie in the big black #3 car. My dad watched it every Sunday and, other than monster trucks, it was really the only racing I knew about. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. But then one fine day Speedvision showed up in the cable package and suddenly, as one would guess by the channel name, there was this whole new world of speed to view. First it was British Touring Car and Australian V8 Supercar racing. Cars that were distinct from one another! That actually resembled the street cars they shared names with! And they could turn right! And then there was Le Mans. Five different tiers of cars, all running on the same track at different speeds! For 24 hours straight! Even at night! In the rain! Because their lights weren’t stickers! Then, sometime in 2001 I think it was, I saw something that was just the best: WRC. The World Rally Championship. This was a whole different breed of racing than running in circles. These were cars blasting, one at a time, down timed stretches of every type of road (or “road”) imaginable: smooth ribbons of Western European tarmac; dusty dirt tracks; gravel-strewn moonscapes suitable maybe for mules; all lively with hairpins, jumps, streams, occasional livestock. These slick European hatchbacks took monstrous beatings while them good ol’ boys and their burly NASCAR stockers hid in their trailers at the slightest hint of rain. Drivers drove like men possessed while brass-balled co-drivers sitting shotgun calmly read off directions; and if something went wrong, both would hop out and fix the car. I rooted for the Peugeot 206 WRC simply on the merits of it being one drop-dead gorgeous little Gallic rocketship that just so happened to take the championship three times in a row. That said, I did have a soft spot for the perennial struggler: the Skoda Octavia WRC. It was the Czech tank of the grid; too big for rallying but made a great sound and was a true underdog.

Peugeot 206 WRC

Peugeot 206 WRC

Skoda Octavia WRC

Skoda Octavia WRC

These cars ran with mandated sub-2000cc turbocharged engines good for about 300 horsepower that would literally spit fire out the tailpipe at every slam of the sequential shifter. This pyrotechnic display with accompanying gunshot sound, I would learn later, was an anti-lag system for the turbochargers. For those not in the know, a turbocharger is essentially a two-ended turbine. One end is driven by hot exhaust gases on their way out of the engine and the other acts as a compressor for air on its way in. More air means more pressure means more force per combustion event means your 206 WRC goes faster. Problem is, there is a delay – “lag” – while the exhaust gas spools up the turbine wherein you make less power. Since this is racing, that won’t do at all. The WRC cars got around this by allowing fresh air into the hot exhaust manifold to mix with unburned fuel. The mixture would ignite, driving the turbo while the throttle was off; making a loud bang and sending flame out the back. This anti-lag measure was critical when I got into WRC as the air inlet for the turbo was choked down by a restrictor to keep power down at 300 hp. Naturally, my question became why the restrictor? The answer was a most glorious thing to behold; a distant myth from a legendary age before time itself: 1982-1986. A time when monsters roamed the earth.

Actually, the story begins earlier than that, way way back in 1972 with the introduction of one of my very favorite cars of all time: the Lancia Stratos HF. This tiny wedge doorstop of a car was the first to be single-mindedly purpose-built to win rallies. Its wide track, tiny length, rear-wheel-drive and Ferrari V6 made it both blisteringly fast and nervously twitchy. In other words, the perfect weapon for tight and winding rally stages. It filled Lancia’s trophy cabinet as one would expect a thing meant to do just that would, bringing home the top-level championship in ’74, ’75, and ’76. It kept competitive into the ‘80s though overshadowed by FIATs after infighting among FIAT and the makers it controlled, including Lancia. Boo, hiss, and all that.

Lancia Stratos HF

Lancia Stratos HF

Audi would be the ones to change the game next, unleashing what next to the Stratos was a ponderous, nose-heavy titan of a thing. It boasted a fancy and complex all-wheel-drive system that gave the car its name – Audi Quattro.

Audi Quattro

Audi Quattro

As the sales success of AWD cars over the last thirty years has shown, that kind of thing is really, really handy on traction-unfriendly surfaces like dirt, gravel, and snow. Surfaces that rallies like to be run on. So handy that Frenchwoman Michele Mouton wrestled that awkward Audi into second place in the world championship. (Ladies, I will always reverently view Mouton as the true face of the potential for women in motorsport. Not middle-of-the-pack-talent that happens to look good in GoDaddy commercials like, oh, say one Danica Patrick.)

Michele Mouton

Michele Mouton

At the time, rally class rules stipulated that a rally car had to be based on a street car that sold 5000 units a year. Given that most mass-market offerings were becoming front-wheel-drive economy cars, this excluded a ton of smaller carmakers from rally. Smelling these winds of change, and anticipating a possible technological arms race, stuffy old rulemakers and administrators did something rather odd and created a new class of rally car. A largely de-restricted class that mandated A) two seats, and B) 200 street cars be haphazardly slapped together and sold to maniacs. Sure, there were other rules like weight minimums and corresponding engine size limits, and math to equalize turbocharged/supercharged engines with those that were not (which didn’t come close to working as engineers went mad with boost – either you raced with boost or you lost badly) but those don’t really matter. The FIA had given engineers the go-ahead to build monsters; and monsters they built. These were the legendary, the epic, the fearsome cars of Group B.

The first shots fired across Audi’s most prominent bow were from Lancia who came out swinging with another of my all-time favorite cars, the 037. By the end of its run in 1984 its 2000cc motor – supercharged (like a turbo but mechanically driven by the engine eliminating lag) – was screaming out 325 horsepower driving a scant minimum weight of 960 kg. It was the last rear-wheel-drive car to ever win the championship.

Lanica 037

Lanica 037

Halfway through 1984 Peugeot waded into the fray with their 205 T16. Small, reliable and more drivable (meaning less terrifying) than the competition the little all-wheel-drive French hatchback dominated in 1985.

Peugeot 205 T16

Peugeot 205 T16

Audi responded by cutting and pasting the Quattro into a shorter, leaner and meaner package. The Sport Quattro S1 punched out 444 turbo horsepower and took the championship away from the 037.

Audi Sport Quattro

Audi Sport Quattro

In the midst of the melee yet another of my bizarre favorites came to be. Austin took their Metro, otherwise a miserable shopping cart, bolted a wing or vent or box onto every surface, stuck in an angry turbo motor and made the Metro 6R4. It didn’t win much of anything but made a name for itself in rallycross (think a mixed-surface closed race circuit with 4 to 6 cars bludgeoning each other for position) well into the 1990s.

Metro 6R4

Metro 6R4

Ford came late to the party with the attractive and speedy RS200, though it only achieved one event third place in 1986. 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution

And just as the madness began with the Stratos and again with the 037, Lancia blew everything out the water with my most favorite of all the Group B beasts. The Delta S4.

Lancia Delta S4

Lancia Delta S4

It was a true, horror-movie monster. A sub-1800cc engine fitted with both a supercharger and a turbocharger was stuck in the middle of a tube-frame (much like the 305 T16) wearing flimsy Delta hatchback bodywork like an ill-fitting Halloween mask. Officially, in race trim it made 480 horsepower. Owing to typical racing skullduggery it most certainly did not. The engine was tested at up to 1000 horsepower and was thought to make somewhere in the mid-500s on race weekends. Urban legend says that it ran a race track and posted the sixth best time. In a field of Formula 1 race cars. As it turns out, that is only partially true. A Delta S4 in the hands of prodigy Henri Toivonen did in fact lap Estoril circuit; and did indeed post a lap time somewhere in the top 10 of Formula 1 times that week; but those were merely preliminary testing times and not nearly as fast as dialed-in, 1500-horsepower F1 cars would turn in qualifying or on race day. But still, the S4 was mind-bendingly quick. From a dead stop 100 km/h came and went in as little in 2.3 seconds. On gravel.

For 1986, the Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2 was tickling the bottom of 600 horsepower and needed a massive snowplow of a nose and buffet table of a rear wing to have a hope of staying on the ground.

Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2

Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2

The cars were becoming too much for mortal men and it showed. 1985, Atillio Bettega pinballed a Lancia 037 through a forest, killing himself and a co-driver. And the crowds didn’t help. Stages became lined with walls of spectators a dozen deep, which often spilled into the road and would narrowly split as cars barrelled towards them. Rally Portugal, 1986. A Ford RS200 jinks to avoid a wayward fan and slides sideways into a crowd. Three die, thirty-some more are injured. By the end, the cars became too much even for men seen as immortal. Tour de Corse, France, 1986. Henri Toivonen, the only one who could release the Delta S4’s true potential, was running away with a massive lead in the second day of competition. Unseen, he enters a hairpin and zigs when he should have zagged. His Lancia Delta S4 sails into a ravine and ejects both crew on impact. It rolls over both men, killing them, before it lands on its roof and explodes into flame. There was not enough recognizable wreckage to determine a cause. The drivers issued a letter to the governing bodies citing crowd control issues and unmanageable speeds and Group B was banned at the close of the 1986 season.

For a few short, glorious years in the 1980s Group B rally cars were the fastest, meanest and most electrifying form of motorsport the planet has ever seen and I do dearly wish I was there to see it. I’ve seen a number of these cars for sale in Vegas and I could not think of a better way to spend 1 million US greenbacks than on a Lancia 037, Metro 6R4 and a Ford RS200. If I were to see a late Audi Quattro S1 with the shovel nose, or especially a Lancia Delta S4, I would stop dead in my tracks, my blood would flow cold and my heart would stop. They are cars I profoundly fear yet dearly lust for. They were once chariots of gods. Cars that embraced bleeding edge technology to go faster thirty years ago than we can dare to go now, in this age where NASCAR only just adopted fuel injection as a legitimate technology, not some dag-nabbed dirty foreign Commie, freedom-hatin’, Jesus-denyin’ plot agains Murrica, never you mind that it was available on the Corvette in the 1950s. No, keep drivin’ in circles boys.

I love every scrap of footage of Group B I can find. Where the real men raced on dirt and snow and mud and turned right. And French women could beat them. Somewhere, a NASCAR fan’s head just dun’ esploded like the Fourth of Joo-ly y’all.

I’ll leave this video.

Posted by: joevanderfluit | April 27, 2014

Tilikum, and That Certificate On My Wall

I’ve found myself thinking, over these last few months, if I made the right choice with my university education. I got my B.Sc in Psychology; after bailing on pure Neuroscience half-way, because organic chemistry and biochemistry are not compatible with my brain; because of personal interest. Because of the neat things my brain did while severely concussed as a kid, and not necessarily for career prospects. But then I came and moved to Calgary with this crazy housing market, and now I’m baffled by what jobs people have to afford the average $493,000 home. And, by extension, what people took to get these jobs. Should I have done something different?

In an economic sense, yes, yes I should have. I should done business and numbers and pie charts and whatever other miserable things must be done in a shirt and tie.(Failing that, I should have been a better electrician, but alas, my fists of ham and fingers of butter and preference of working with the metric system left me unhappy). But economics are not everything. Since finding 770 AM talk radio, I have looked unto the earth and despaired, for my good god basic scientific literacy is in critically short supply. I can thank my education that my progeny (rue that day) won’t die of measles because I’m not a goddamned idiot. And unlike Bill O’Reilly I can explain the tides. And I have to say it’s nice to care more about how many moons Pluto has than how many points up or down the TSX is today. I can look back on those lab sessions and smile that we had a debate about which was the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (Donatello, clearly) while bacteria duked it out in the evolutionary crucible that is a petri dish under an ultraviolet lamp. Once, a lab partner turned to me and casually told me, “dude, your sleeve is on fire”. Yes I scorched my labcoat on a Bunsen burner. FOR SCIENCE! I melted my fingerprints off with sodium hydroxide and dyed my hand with the stuff that turns apples brown. I was able to write about how weird it is that we feel so emotionally strongly for Pluto – a thing almost everyone on earth has never actually seen – to rally around its planetary demotion; and that it makes evolutionary sense to give our cars names and personalities. For academic credit! That is awesome! And, as I did in one of those magnum opus animal behavior/evolutionary psychology papers (that has since been lost to the ages, because as “Danger” is my middle name, I didn’t backup my hard drive) I wrote about orcas.Image

Which brings to me to this weekend. I finally got around to watching Blackfish. I’d heard it was fantastic for months before, but I had hesitations. I’ll come back to those. What’s important now is that it is easily, without any doubt, the most profoundly moving and utterly heart-breaking thing I have ever watched. I survived a miniseries about Auschwitz and toughed through Up!, through the “Tell me I’m a good man” from the end of Saving Private Ryan, and stood at the Vietnam Memorial twice and had an easier time emotionally.

I am astoundingly fortunate to say I’ve seen first-hand and at close range the great fauna of Africa and I will still say they cannot hold a candle to how fascinating I find both bats (which I won’t go into here) and killer whales (actually dolphins, but colloquial expressions trump pedantry here and elsewhere). They are beautiful. They are ten-thousand kilogram kinetic freight trains of creatures that can gang-beat great white sharks into goo. Awesome, certainly, but definitely not the whole story. I am drawn to them by their combination of physical presence and gob-smacking intelligence. They use language, and have regional dialects. Accents. I am trained – beaten over the head with the cane of reason – to tread very carefully about assigning human traits to non-humans. It is warranted in their case, in everything they do. Their social nature is possibly even superhuman. Pods are matriarchal, and the young will never leave. Males are pushed to the periphery of the group but they are still part of the group. This surpasses the social organization and cohesion of chimpanzees. Given the fact that there are Vanderfluits scattered all over the place, the social ties of these ‘’whales” could be said to be stronger than our own. And they have a darker side. Bottlenose dolphins appear to have grasped the concept of rape and murder; and as Blackfish shows their much, much larger cousins can, will, and do violently lash out when frustrated and aggravated. You can’t keep an animal the size and weight of a small bus in close quarters with unfamiliar peers (recall regional dialects) and not expect it to cause some degree of frustration and aggravation. Trainers die, whales get hurt, and my heart breaks for both.

Which loops back to why I had reservations about watching the film. I have mixed feelings about SeaWorld (and zoos in general). SeaWorld does do good work with their rehabilitation/reintroduction programs. I respect them for that. With respect to the orcas, though, I’m torn. These animals need to be seen by as many people as possible. It does us good to see the amazing creatures we share the earth with and if it leads to less plastic in the ocean to them to choke on, fantastic. But having them do cute tricks with people in the water? That’s making them dance for change in the train station. They are better than that. They are, as one interviewee eloquently stated, “regal”. Let their physicality speak for themselves. Show us a big black ocean locomotive charge up onto dry land and heave its ten tonnes of muscle back into the water as they do in Patagonia; not “wave” to crowds and “kiss” the pretty trainer. Between shows, let it swim in a huge ocean pen, not the concrete swimming pool it has now. Keep the family groups intact, let them vocalize and show us that. I have no reservations toward admitting that the segment of the film showing the captive mothers and calves separated literally had me in tears. These creatures were clearly, visibly distraught and making noises optimized for long-range communication nobody had yet heard as the young were trucked away. These are big, black-and-white, aquatic persons.

I understand you do often have to take documentaries like Blackfish with a grain or ten of salt – they always have an agenda. Senna, the documentary about the Formula 1 hero, still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, going out of its way to smear rival Alain Prost and official Jean-Marie Balestre to give Ayrton Senna and his estate a wanking fitting of a beatification. Prost was one of Senna’s pallbearers and is on his foundation’s board; not Dick Dastardly. And that production glossed over the bafflingly hypocritical dick moves the “safety-crusading” Senna pulled: clearly intentionally crashing into other drivers on multiple occasions to secure mathematical victories. In many ways, the Top Gear Senna tribute was far superior to the much-lauded Senna. I can only assume such tactical applications of truth are at work in Blackfish, though I do get the sense that the trainers are quite genuinely concerned for the well-being of the animals in their care. Management seems to be, well, management: all MBAs and not a lick of scientific literacy or sense. Which, of course, is another source of heartbreak: I don’t want to see the people in the wetsuits as targets of PETA or whoever. I’m socially inept but I know what love looks like when I see it, and these people love their animals. The “official” story I’d heard of what happened when Tilikum, SeaWorld’s bull killer whale, killed a senior trainer (his third human victim) was that she had slipped, dipping her ponytail into the water. Tilikum treated this as a novel object, grabbed and pulled. A 7000+ kg animal is hardly gentle; resulting in her tragic death due to her mistake. A bit of a slap in the face given her (assumed) professionalism and experience, but does acknowledge, at least to a degree, that Tilikum was a big, predatory force that could still be unpredictable. Unfortunately I still don’t feel the story gives enough credit for Tilikum’s intelligence. He’d been around long enough to know what hair looked like.

Blackfish shows another chain of events. Tilikum was a big boy upon arrival at SeaWorld; brought in for breeding potential (despite an already troubled past of captivity, including one human death). Orca society doesn’t necessarily translate well to captive environments: even if he was family to the existing pod, he wouldn’t be in close proximity to the females – at least further away than the enclosure allows. Irritated females would beat up on the poor guy who was just too damn big to run or hide. So there’s simmering social drama. Add to that, these creatures are complex and do have moods. Bad days. Tilikum was brought in after a show where the other whales were having an off day, agitated and uncooperative. He appears to miss a whistle cue by accident and is refused his positive-reinforcement reward. He becomes exasperated; he’s doing his best but the fish are running out and everyone is getting tired. And he just, breaks. Mentally breaks. He has no real outlets for pent-up aggression other than what he can grab – his trainer. He does to her what his wild kin would do to a seal: violently drowns her, breaking most of her bones. Suddenly it isn’t a tragic accident. It’s a much more tragic result of a broken system. A devoted trainer has lost her life horribly; a living breathing thinking feeling specimen of an apex species is shown to be profoundly traumatized – disturbed – by his past and now gets to live out his life moping alone in a small tank, trotted out for a token appearance in a show now and then. Both of them victims, both of whom I weep for.

Now I’m back where I’ve started. I am deeply thankful my choice of field in my education allowed me to talk and write about these amazing creatures with smart people. I love that I can look at the natural world and see where we, with all our quirks and eccentricities, came from; to see that despite of what talk radio would have me believe intelligence isn’t all that rare. I love that I’m curious and intrigued rather than uneasy looking into the eyes of an orang-utan, gorilla*, elephant, or dolphin and seeing not something but potentially someone look back at me. I love being freaked right the hell out by octopi, because they’re not only gross but orders of magnitude smarter than a squishy mollusc has any right to be. I’m an evolutionary neuropsychologist by training and a glorified car parker by trade; and I think I’d rather be who I am now than the guy with a cookie-cutter suburban house who traded in his soul for an accounting degree.

*DO NOT LOOK A MALE GORILLA IN THE EYES. THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT.

Posted by: joevanderfluit | January 20, 2014

Corvette GrandSport: The Joe Review

Given that the job I’ve taken since my move to Calgary affords me the opportunity to, basically, drive different cars all day, it was natural that I would receive some poking and prodding to scribble up a review or two here and there. So, after a spell of gentle-yet-prolonged nudging – and me musing about these things whilst trapped in a Camry Hybrid itself trapped in gridlock, here I am.

However, there’s a bit of a complication. I work for a Toyota dealer. Which is fine; they sell and I get paid. For the people who buy them, they’re perfectly adequate. For people like me, well, not so much. So any reviews I’d have of our products really have no value beyond entertainment; and wouldn’t be that long. Examples: 2014 Corolla: Looks a lot like a Dodge Dart with a basking shark’s face. The interior is actually quite nice but the rear suspension sort of haphazardly waggles around on its own under any slightly hard-ish cornering. This car does not exist to challenge exit speeds signs, thus I do not want one. 2013 Yaris: Actually a very pleasant surprise, granted it has the long spindly old-school floor-mounted manual. It doesn’t feel as taught and planted as, say, a Mazda2 or Ford Fiesta. But therein lies its charm: it feels like you’re flogging the little wheels off the thing while driving to the Home Depot down the block. Let’s just call it fun for all the wrong reasons. 2014 Prius V: Has a neat climate control interface. `Severely underpowered; converts fuel directly into noise while steadfastly refusing to accelerate to highway speeds. But, should you be confined to slow inner city traffic and need a lot of space, I can see the appeal. 2014 Sequoia: Shockingly nimble at low speeds for an immense SUV; perfectly adapted to the full-size, four-wheel-drive, V8, truck-based 8-passenger SUV’s natural habitat: the grocery store parking lot. Also, voted best in its class by JD Power and Associates for the category of Most Vowels in Name.

See, not all that great. But every now and then, something comes along that consumes my thoughts. Something like what is, by far, the most stunningly disappointing car I have ever driven: the 2010 Corvette GrandSport convertible.Image

Now, it must be noted that I have never been, am not, and will never be a fan of the sixth-generation Corvette. I liked the fifth well enough: sleek and curvy with popup headlights and the big, muscled square badonkadonk out back. But the sixth? I’ve studied it long and hard and I still can’t exactly nail down the reason I find it so heinously repulsive. The bobbed tail? Featureless grille? Headlights that belong on a plastic hotrod from 1995? I don’t know. What I do know is that, for the money the ‘Vette is fast. Stoopid-fast. So I got into the bright red convertible expecting a snorting beast. What I got was a kitten. I desperately hoped the stereotype I held in my head was wrong, that Corvettes were actually the mount of the frugal speed demon and not the fat old retiree. But, alas, the stereotype rings true. The seats are too squishy and the car is far, far too docile. The V8 makes a fantastic noise, as I expected, but doesn’t do so easily enough. The intoxicating V8 bellow shows up somewhere near 5000 rpm; but the car is so powerful that in anything above second gear you are breaking laws by the time you get to hear the monster motor you paid for. In fact, it will cruise happily at highway speed in third gear. The manual feels good – albeit a bit light in the action for me – and the shift knob is well shaped to fit the hand as either a pistol-grip or palm-on-top; but the engine is so torquey it barely needs to be used. I love my Miata because the shift action feels great, and I need to do it all the time because there is simply no torque. The Corvette’s limits are just too high for the street: at any speed or driving style that’s still legal it just isn’t fun. It’s soft and reigned-in; not the snarly angry thing I wanted it to be. The mushy driver’s seat numbed my right leg in half an hour and the power roof is excruciatingly slow. As much as I don’t want to say it, that Corvette was just a big red little blue pill, meant to look racy but wallows like a Cadillac because the owner will be too old and rich to put up with a loud engine and hard suspension that needs care to not smoke off its tires at any and all opportunities. When a bright red Corvette convertible with a huge V8 isn’t as fun or engaging as a purple “girl’s car” like mine, someone is doing something wrong.

Were I forced to give the ‘Vette some sort of arbitrary review grade, let’s give a two of ten as punishment for senselessly squandered potential. 

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