Friday, October 21, 2011

Why you should always question Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports is a great magazine for the average homeowner / consumer.  It provides topical details about everything ranging from laptop computers to snowblowers and even services provided by companies. 

That's all well and good, but when the breadth of the mission the magazine has taken on is so great, the depth of information is sometimes lacking.

I can't reproduce the information here because I'm not an online subscriber to Consumer Reports (CR), but there was an article in the most recent issue (early October) dealing with car waxes and paint care.  Obviously, I jumped right into that article - it's no secret I've been fortunate enough to have been given a free education on these matters from the kind folks at

Essentially, CR screwed the pooch with their review of car waxes.  It's not because Mothers didn't come in first in every category; I swear.  They included cleaner waxes lumped in to the same review as top coats; they included liquid and synthetic waxes with carnauba and paste waxes.  I thought to myself - who would do such a thing?  Read my letter below to find out why this is a bad idea.

I wrote the letter to the editor below about a week ago, but haven't heard back and don't expect to.  The car wax review is just another reason I dislike CR magazine for important consumer decision-making.  When you want to buy a TV, for example, go to an electronics review site and use Google to find it; when you want to upgrade your audio system, go to  The extra effort of typing a few keys in is worthwhile.

Also consider price point.  Consumer Reports does take into account price, so they might compare a Craftsman snow thrower to an Ariens and lead people to believe the Craftsman is just as good, because the price is lower but the quality isn't a good deal lower than an Ariens.  I love Craftsman and have a Craftsman mower that has served me well in my two years as a home owner.  But if you can afford an Ariens snow thrower with no problem, why would you not get the one with the better reputation and better build? 

CR should be renamed "Consumer Guidance", meaning, a guide for people who really have no clue what to buy when they want something new (a TV, a toaster, a blender), and who want a magazine to tell them what brand that new thing should be.

Here's the letter:

In regard to the recent Consumer Reports magazine issue dealing with car care, tires, and batteries, I found it curious that "Cleaner waxes" from several different companies, including Mothers & Meguiar's, were included in the test.
Cleaner wax is intended as a "step 1" for anyone waxing a vehicle - it's meant to strip the vehicle's paint of old wax as well as contaminants and grime, and thus is a preparation for a top coat, or even a step 2 before the top coat, such as Mothers Sealer & Glaze.  What CR magazine seemed to be trying to compare are "top coats", or what most people think of traditionally as "car wax".  Cleaner waxes should not have been included as standalone products to compare against top coats; in this way, I feel CR magazine misrepresented certain products in this comparison.  The only comparison where it would make sense to include cleaner waxes are product *lines* that are intended to be applied in steps, such as Mothers Step1-3 and the equivalent Meguiar's products.
Additionally, no mention of paint color was made as far as I remember.  Mothers and its resellers, particularly those that focus on the antique car market, will tell you that you need to choose the right product for the type of paint, age of the car, and color.  I saw that synthetic liquid waxes were lumped in with carnauba paste waxes - again, these comparisons lose their meaning when it appears some random polishes are chosen off of store shelves with no regard to intended use.

Car care advice from some guy at AAA features car care advice from John Paul at AAA New England. It's nice that features solid car care tips, but I've learned first hand over the years to question some of the modern logic out there pertaining to cars.  So has John, but we still differ in some respects.

Here, created a "best of" slideshow and I just couldn't help picking some of his points apart.  Many of the slides feature good, common sense measures to save on gas, and simply be a safer driver; others I disagree with wholeheartedly.

For example:

"Putting the wipers up and away from the windshield certainly makes it easier to clean the windshield if it snows. It also eliminates the chance of the wipers freezing to the windshield. My concern is that by doing this you are putting stress on the spring that holds the wiper arm against the windshield. I don't do it on my car."

I don't understand this tip as I've never had springs on my wipers break due to heavy snow or ice.  Most cars have the springs tucked away well enough and flush with the windshield such that it would be damn near impossible for the springs to break - in fact, the concern here is ice and snow bending the wiper backward until it snaps.

My problem with this tip is it doesn't account for probabilities and cost.  Would you rather *definitely* replace your wiper blades after a few snow storms, as leaving them on the windshield will cause the rubber to become nearly unusable if you don't store them up & away from the glass during storms? Or would you rather take the small chance that a blizzard of immense proportion will come and bury your car in so much snow that the strong metal springs holding your wipers against the glass will snap off? 

One last point on this one - spring for the orange Rain-X ice-melt stuff, not the crappy gas station "ice melt".  Shell tends to carry the Rain-X stuff but most auto supply stores will also carry it.  It's by far the best brand of ice and snow melt washer fluid and I keep it in year-round on both vehicles.

"In my opinion, warming up a car wastes gas and adds to air pollution. Certainly there are times when it makes sense to let your car warm up. One example may be that the windshield is frozen and warming up the car is necessary to scrape all the ice off the windows."

I love the 'air pollution' argument. We all contribute to air pollution when we drive. What's another minute on idle? If you're penny pinching to save on gas to that degree, re-evaluate your commute.

What John Paul doesn't say is that it's plain dangerous to drive in a freezing cold car for any length of time. People who don't allow the defrosters to kick in and drive with windows fogged up until 10 or 15 minutes into their commute lower their own visibility on the roads. I've nearly been killed by some of these bozos.

He also talks about headlights and making sure they retain brightness and don't wait for them to burn out before replacing them; check them out & ensure they're not weak.  This is a fantastic tip but he doesn't take it far enough - how about some recommendations?  For me, there's no better place to go than the source - a guy who consults for the US DOT - Daniel Stern.  

Further into the slideshow, Mr. Paul talks about how it's perfectly fine to switch between synthetic and regular oil, but that synthetic oil is more likely to find leaks.  I don't understand this advice.  Who would recommend such an approach?  No mechanic I've ever spoken to.  While it may not kill the engine to do this, why would you switch between regular & synthetic oil?  Stick with one and your engine will love you back for a longer period of time.

I hate to pick on this guy and his readers, but there's also his mailbag.  Are there really people who still take the car to a $tealership to fix a couple scratches?

Observe here & below:

Q. I was cleaning sap off my car and used “Goof Off” but also used a straight-edge razor to get some of the stubborn sap off. When I did this I nicked and scratched the paint on the car. It is a 2009 Toyota Camry. I spoke to my dealer and they said to bring it in but I am afraid of what it will cost. I’m on a budget and every penny counts. Can I touch it up myself?
Really?  I'm amazed at how few people know how to use Google for simple car care tips.  You might even run into this blog if you search for the right thing...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What happened to the C-Max?

UPDATE Feb 20 2012:  Read about the official cancellation of the 7-passenger MPV C-Max by clicking here.

Yes, old news...still no less disappointing. The comments say it all, really.  Mazda must be happy to hear it, while consumers aren't.  And yet, it makes sense - even our family opted for the larger Honda Odyssey and were willing to splurge for the frills that it offered, beyond the space.  Ah, well.  Guess it will take even higher fuel prices and a worse economy to push people into smaller cars.

Original post follows:

More appropriately:  what happened to the late 2011 release of the gas-powered 2012 Ford C-Max with a 2.0L 4-cylinder engine?

I've written a couple of times about the Ford C-Max, sold in Europe for a few years now, and similar to the Mazda5 in that it is a 5-door "MPV" (small minivan).

Until recently, Ford has a minisite dedicated to the C-Max on its website, touting the benefits of its advanced technology and, important for American drivers, sliding doors that mimic those of a full size minivan.

Now, for some reason, we only see the Energi and Hybrid models on the site under Future Vehicles - without sliding doors - not the gas-powered 2.0L 4-cylinder which was supposed to launch in late 2011 as a 2012 model.  What happened?

I've written some of the PR folks and product managers at Ford with no luck.  They'd been responsive up until the late spring, when they told me that we can expect to see the C-Max in showrooms late this year, but that the Energi & Hybrid models weren't going to be out until next year.  When I was shopping for a minivan and considering the Mazda5 and C-Max as well, it was nice to know there'd be a tech-loaded MPV by the end of the year to look forward to shopping against other offerings.  I've already bought my car, but many of the hits on this site are a result of searching for information on the C-Max and, in particular, the Mazda5 vs. the C-Max, so this is likely confusing and disappointing more folks than just me.

I'd invite others to voice their displeasure to Ford by clicking here and contacting Ford's North American PR team as well as their product managers about this.  You'll have to register for the site to contact them but it's not just for media.

Even Ford's own website showing the Energi & Hybrid models, which say "Available Fall 2012" under them, show 5-door vehicles without sliding doors, which contradicts with Ford's own minisite it had up this spring for the 2.0L 4-cylinder model. 

Hopefully someone else has better luck than me, or at the very least Ford hears the displeasure of its future C-Max customers and responds with some more info.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

Recently, we traded in our 2002 Sable and upgraded to a family hauler, a 2009 Honda Odyssey EX-L.  The more I drive this hulking beast of a minivan, the more I grow to love it.

My new commuter car is my wife's old car, a 2000 Lexus ES300 Platinum Edition.  It's essentially a Toyota Camry chassis with some niceties added.  But as the vehicle is nearing its twelfth birthday, it's been (knock on wood) very reliable, without much in the way of problems (knock harder on wood).  We even bought it with nearly 90,000 miles on it and it just passed the 120,000 mile mark.  In that time, if I remember correctly, we've done the following work that goes above & beyond normal wear items:

  • replaced A/C clutch - not even sure this was necessary. I complained about a noise outside the car, a hissing/whining mechanical sound when the air conditioning was turned on, and my mechanic replaced the clutch inside the A/C unit.
  • dash lights - some of the climate control lights are out.  the procedure to take them out isn't as easy as with a Mercedes-Benz, or at least MB's of the past, where one only needed mechanical keys to extract the entire climate control module out of the dash and then could get at the lights easily with simple tools. I haven't done this work, but I figure at twelve years old this is technically a "wear item".
  • Throttle body cleaning - my car would start but not idle, and fool that I am, I tried to crank it with my other car's battery.  Turned out the throttle body was severely gunked up and is now fine...cost less than $200 overall even with an oil change added in when the car went to my mechanic.
  • Mirror hazing - as typical with BMWs and Mercedes and just about any car that has heated exterior mirrors, my Lexus has that "mirror haze" where the seal has been broken and the driver's side mirror is turning brown on the bottom.  It hasn't infected the entire would be nice to get replaced so the heated element works, but that comes at a price of over $400 at the Lexus dealer for the part alone, and no one makes an aftermarket glass that will fit that & allow me to keep use of my heated mirror.  So, I'll find a specialty glass shop & probably pay $100 for them to replace just the glass.
That's about it.  Not bad for 3.5 years & 30K miles of ownership at the higher end of the car's life.

I should add that while a typical front wheel drive Japanese sedan, it does come with heated seats, HomeLink (now that I have a garage, this is nice), side airbags - though not side *head* airbags, power seats, a 6-cd changer, and a tape deck - which I like so I can use my iPod via a tape adapter. Even the armrest storage & glove box seem to be done just right.  And Lexus as a company loves that half-woodgrain steering wheel & nice wood trim, as do I.

The subject heading of this post has more to do with the fact that I recently took out the baby seat recently, and gave it a complete Mothers pampering.  Washed & waxed on the outside, and on the inside I cleaned & conditioned the leather & vinyl, vacuumed and cleaned the upholstery, even used glass cleaner on the windows.  The car felt & looked nearly new on the inside (ok, at the very least, very nicely treated used).

There's nothing like Mothers detailing products & nothing like giving an old car with a couple of rips in the leather and marks on the dash a thorough detailing.  It's easy when using a car like that as a daily commuter to forget how nice the car truly is, but once it's detailed nicely, you remember that a nicely appointed luxury car, no matter how old, is a joy to drive.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

2009 Odyssey EX-L: First week of ownership

After one week of ownership of our 2009 Honda Odyssey EX-L, I have to give it two thumbs up.

I took the minivan to work the other day as it was my responsibility to pick up my son after work.  While the vehicle is bigger than we need at present, even with just one more kid, I can see it being very useful for things like trips to the beach where it'll be easier to clean sand, etc. off the car's floor, and it'll be easier to take all the "stuff" with us that we want to take.  My wife is fair skinned as is my son, so for my son we take a little tent to the beach and we need the umbrella, blankets, chairs, etc.  Fitting this all in the trunk of a Mercury Sable was not pleasant last year.

In terms of performance, the 244 horsepower i-VTEC engine with Variable Cylinder Management is smooth and powerful.  During acceleration and at highway speeds, it doesn't lag a bit or leave you wanting for more.  It is a minivan after all, so it deserves a lot of power to move its heft around.

The braking performance isn't blowing me away, but it's good enough for our driving styles.  When in a minivan, as nice as the engine may be, it's still not something you want to drive in an aggressive manner.  I've heard complaints about the braking performance but in normal city driving and when not tailgating, it's fine.  Even if you do have to punch the brakes at a low speed, the brakes are very responsive.  The problem comes when you're heading off a highway ramp at, say, 60mph, and see traffic up ahead where the driver needs to suddenly slow down.  It's taking some getting used to, to figure out how much pressure to apply, so the braking in these cases isn't always smooth.  Once I get used to it, I'm sure it'll be fine.

We have only driven it a couple hundred miles, and have yet to make use of all the nice rear cargo space.  I plan on folding the third row of seats entirely flat for the summer, as there are only three of us, and it's easy enough to fold one of them back up for an additional passenger should we have one.

Typical of Honda, the EX-L trim is highly refined.  I do miss the extra creature comforts of the Mercedes E-classes I've owned, and even the driving dynamics and smoother transmission of the VW Passat wagon.  But as this is a minivan, the auto climate control for the rear, the extra vents and lights, the leather seating & refined interior are all nicer than one would normally expect in a commonly seen family hauler.

While Honda has a solid reputation for reliability, my only concern going forward are transmission issues that Honda has managed to keep a lid on in recent years.  Join up on a couple of Honda forums focusing on Accord or Odyssey, and you'll know what I mean.  This is reason enough, in my opinion, to purchase an aftermarket extended warranty from a reputable company next year, before the factory warranty runs out.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

So, Mazda5 or Ford C-Max? Neither: Honda Odyssey!

Per my recent post about buying a new family car, I went and drove the 2012 Mazda5 recently. It was a great vehicle and we could have afforded it brand new.  There were some curious things about it, such as having power seating and a few other gadgets left off the highest possible trim level of the vehicle. While in-dash navigation isn't a necessity for us, getting a rear DVD entertainment system included from the factory would have been a nice option - but not really Mazda's style, so that would have been a dealer accessory/add-on.

But the way it drove was fantastic.  Really handled itself well for a 2.5 liter 4-cylinder engine with only a little bit of pep added from the first gen Mazda5.  I was impressed with the engine and the way it used its power.  I extended the test drive a bit and made sure to rev it up to a good highway speed, and it handled itself like a champ.

In the end, though, my wife, already comfortable with the minivan she has to drive for work, which is a Dodge Caravan, had said all along she wanted a full size minivan.  I told her that the Mazda5 was a great option, but admitted that there is virtually zero cargo room for our needs when the 5th and 6th seats in the 3rd row are up. That's too bad as just a little bit more length wouldn't have killed the idea of the Mazda5 and still would have made it significantly smaller than the full size minivans on the market.

While the 3rd row seats might not have been used frequently, we really wanted a long term family car with the kind of hauling capability that homeowners require at times, for that trip to Home Depot to get a big something-or-other.  It's also nicer to have the extra cargo room for beach trips, where one has a deep well of space in the Odyssey even behind the third row for things like beach chairs and bags that will get sand all over most car trunks. 

What about the upcoming Ford C-Max, you ask?  The reviews I've read indicate it will be 5 inches shorter than the Mazda5, so the cargo room with all seats forward would be even worse.

So we ended up with a 2009 Honda Odyssey EX-L with only 13K miles on it.  Hard to resist given we get the balance of the factory warranty; one full year from purchase date to think about an aftermarket warranty, etc.  The EX-L trim on any Honda comes loaded with goodies like leather, moonroof, heated seats & mirrors, auto climate control...and on the minivan, the doors on the side & rear are power operated (if one chooses to engage that option - one can turn it off and go manual instead).   Nice little gadgetry I didn't even know it had until I was pulling off the lot:  a rear back up camera appears in the rear-view mirror on EX-L models not equipped with navigation.  I asked to add backup sensors and the dealership employee looked at me with an inquisitive look - why would you need them, he asked, if you can see what's going on behind you?  I didn't know what he was talking about so had him show me.

Yes, with a more complex car and a bigger engine, fuel economy and little quirks are likely to be more of a nuisance.  But we're thrilled with our purchase and we know it will be a great long-term family hauler.  If my wife drove more than 15,000 miles per year, I would have probably not found the extra room in our budget it took to get this vehicle.  But given she typically drives 10K miles per year or less, it was a no-brainer.

Who knows, maybe after we've paid it off, I'll trade my car in for a C-Max or a Mazda5? 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Fiat 500 has arrived in the USA

In the midst of high gas prices and a trend toward smaller vehicles, the Fiat 500 is still a head-scratcher.  One simple reason:  price.

Per this story on, the Fiat 500 will have a 101-hp engine starting at $16,000, topping out around $21,000.

While this vehicle is not meant to compete with, say, a Honda Civic - which has grown in size in lockstep with the Accord to the point that the Accord is now a "full size" car - it'll still be difficult to find a market for the upstream trim level, which will likely surpass $20K.  For $20K, you can get a Civic with decent features and the gas mileage will be about the same in an auto transmission: 34/27 for the AT Fiat 500, and 38mpg highway for the 2011 Civic coupe.

I can understand the novelty of such a vehicle but feel it will have a limited market, appealing to hipsters looking for something different as well as the article's protagonist - Boomers who are of Italian descent or who used to own a "CinqueCento" back in the day.

Still, one can hardly blame Marchionne for not showing all his cards in Fiat's first romp back in the States since 1984.  It didn't cost Fiat much to re-enter the market, having brought no cash to the table when obtaining a stake in the bankrupt Chrysler back in 2009.  So, much like with the Alfa 8C Competezione, he's aiming for a very targeted campaign, hoping they sell out, and having this car be, in effect, free advertising for the next wave of more sensible Fiat vehicles. 

Here's to hoping Fiat sells out the 500 at all of the 130 dealerships at which it will be offered, and we see more Fiats and Alfas in the coming years.

Update, and Ford C-Max vs. Mazda5

Can't believe it's been nearly two years since I wrote in this thing.

Back then, I owned a Benz and my wife a Lexus.  My wife still has the Lexus.  After my insurance nightmare with the Benz E-320,  I sold the Benz in August of 2009, our first child was born that same month, and a few months later we were down to one car and had a new house.  That forced us to stay conservative as it pertained to vehicle purchases, so I bought a used Mercury Sable LS Premium for cheap money as my daily commuter car.  It's a nine mile commute with no traffic congestion, so it didn't make sense even to go with an older Benz where you don't know if the air conditioner or heater core is going to go at any time.  Not that Benzes aren't reliable, but I didn't want to tempt fate.

And of course, wouldn't you know it, less than a year in I had to replace the transmission on my Mercury.  I was playing with house money given the payment was so cheap and I wanted to trade it in soon anyway, but it hurt big time to have to shell out $2K for a car that cost me only three times that.  The Ford-made Duratec engine is great for what it is - not nearly as peppy as our 3.0-liter V6 in the Lexus, but torquey enough to pull the floaty whale through tough waters when necessary.  But the trannys, I heard, had plenty of problems in the Taurus and Sable in the early 2000s.  I just figured with only 63K miles on the thing when I bought it, it shouldn't be an issue - and was wrong!

We plan on trading our Mercury in this year for either a new Ford C-Max or a new Mazda5.  Both are mini-minivans and both are based on Ford's worldwide C platform.  Think longer-wheelbase Focus with a minivan rear end and the sliding doors to go along with it.

For a family that will likely grow from three to four in the next couple of years, it's a hell of a lot better price-wise than going for a huge Odyssey or Sienna - while nice, loaded up those things can cost upwards of $40K and we simply cannot afford one new with the features we want.

Before having driven either car - and I do expect the Mazda to drive better than the C-Max only because the Mazda3 has such a large enthusiast base with testimonials about how it handles as close to a BMW as any compact car has a right to - the C-Max may edge out the Mazda5.  (Both would be 2012 models as the C-Max hasn't landed for sale yet in the States and the Mazda5 skipped the 2011 model year).

One thing not considered here is price.  Let's assume that a C-Max SEL will cost roughly the same as the Mazda5 Grand Touring.  With the Mazda5, we will need to add a couple grand in for a roof cargo container, a DVD entertainment system should we opt to buy one, and any other dealer options.  Same with the Ford C-Max, but we do expect the C-Max to come with more electronic gadgets as standard in the SEL trim.

  • Electronics:  if you click on the above link for the C-Max and toy around in the mini-site, you'll see a lot of cool gizmos available on the C-Max:  factory-installed DVD, factory navigation, SYNC, etc.  Ford has been pushing to really load up their cars with as many electronics as possible.  It's really neat in the Edge, and the difference is astounding when you get into a Limited or SEL with navigation vs. an SE without any cool electronic features. It's a joy to plug in a route or play with the radio in the Limited, but the SE looks very plain in comparison.  My 63-year old father uses the bluetooth hookup with ease for his cell phone, and when he calls me from the car the sound quality is great - expect more of the same in the C-Max.  The Mazda5 falls short here as you can't get factory navigation, can't get a factory installed DVD system, and has nothing like SYNC.
  • Design:  The Mazda5 has the C-Max beat here.  Ford's new designs overall have been great; the refreshed Edge looks better than the original.  But Mazda's designs aren't so bad either, and the 5 looks fantastic compared to what now looks like its pedestrian predecessor.  The C-Max doesn't have the cool new grill gracing many of Ford's newer models.  While I understand it's hard to find room for that type of grill on a compact car with a smaller hood, there's still a stark difference, and the front end looks more like a Fiesta.
  • Upstream features:  We are likely to get the most loaded version of either car as we can.  Beyond the interior comforts, where the C-Max wins, it will also bring the Hands-Free Liftgate, likely to be standard on the SEL trim.  This is a neat feature - all else being equal, with Mazda5 not even having a power liftgate for the 2012 model, this is pure, convenient joy.
  • Seating:  The C-Max is being billed as a "5+2", because there is a stowaway middle seat option. It seems likely, though, that this stowaway middle seat will not have LATCH (few cars have three LATCH seats across the second row as it is).  And it may make more complicated what may already be a tight squeeze to get to the third row of seats.  Neat feature, but if I had the option, I'd probably stick with the Mazda5 orientation:  Six-seater, pure and simple.  Two kids, each with their own bucket seat, in the second row, with the third row available for kids who are in booster seats (no LATCH logos on the third row of either car, so assuming it won't be available) if necessary.  Mazda wins here, but it's not a big win because you can simply keep the Ford's middle seat in the second row stowed.
  •  Dimensions:  The Mazda's dimensions have been published as the car is available now, but the C-Max's haven't.  Will Ford make the dimensions about the same?  It could just be the design cues, but the C-Max looks smaller to me than the Mazda5.  While we aren't buying the car for cavernous cargo room, we wanted a car with a third row that folds flat more for cargo space than the expectation we'll have three or four kids, or need to haul lots of kids around all the time.  How easy is it to get to the third row in both cars?  Does the sliding door open past the second row of seats so you could sneak back there from the outside?  These are things we'll be looking at when we hit the showroom floors.
 If the Mazda5 drives better, one thing for us to consider is that my wife will be doing most of the driving.  She doesn't care about driving dynamics, so that might not even be enough to steer us away from the C-Max given all the other goodies one can get.  This is a long term car for us, and despite the six seats, we will likely keep the third row folded flat most of the time for shopping trips.