December 2011 Archives

Whoa Nelly!

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Here's a handy car care tip from your friend Steve...

Amy drives a 2002 Chevrolet Tahoe and has driven it nearly every single day since we bought it in November of 2001. The Tahoe's primary job is to shuttle Amy from the house to the animal shelter, which is just about 3.0 miles each way.

Along that way, she has to navigate a large hill, which offers more than 500-feet of elevation change. Then, she has to deal with merging onto the interstate, driving about 2.25 miles, and then slowing from 60-mph to 0 so that she can make a cross-traffic turn into the Shelter.

Needless to say, the Tahoe does not have an easy life. It gets to look forward to a short drive, complete with large hills, rapid acceleration, sudden deceleration, and then it gets to do it all over again at the end of the day.

Trips like this are hell on a vehicle. It's hard on the engine. It's hard on the transmission. It's hard on the exhaust system. And it's especially hard on the brakes.

We've done a great job of taking care of general maintenance - the Tahoe receives an oil change every 4-5 months, complete with Pennzoil Platinum 5w30 and a Wix filter. Every year, the tires are rotated and the fuel filter is replaced. Every two years, the Tahoe gets a transmission fluid flush, a complete tune-up, new air filter, and a coolant flush.

And just last week, we replaced the brakes. The Tahoe received a new set of cryogenically-treated Centric rotors (front and rear), Hawk HPS pads (front and rear), and 40-ounces of fresh brake fluid.

Now, that may not seem too exciting, but when you consider the Tahoe got more than 100,000 miles out of its existing set of brakes, that's a major feat, especially given the terrain in which it operates.

You see, back in November of 2003, at around 30,000 miles, I installed a set of cryogenically-treated rotors (front and rear) and a set of Hawk HPS brake pads (front and rear). I also flushed the brake fluid with Wilwood DOT 4 fluid. It cost about $600 to do the full work-up, but I felt it was worth the cost.

And after 100,000 hellish miles, I can confirm it was money well-spent. When I took off the existing pads and rotors, the front set was showed less than 25% wear. I could have easily gotten another 100,000 miles from those front rotors and pads. The rear brakes could have gone another 5-10,000 miles before needing replacement. Regardless, it's totally impressive that the Tahoe got that sort of mileage from those parts.

Most brakes will last maybe 50,000-miles. If you're lucky. And if you drive a lightweight vehicle on flat terrain. The Tahoe tips the scales at more than 4,800-pounds (dry) and it spends its life in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. To get 100,000 miles from the rear brakes is amazing. To think that we could have easily gotten 200,000 miles from the fronts is mind-blowing.

So... take it from me... if you're in the market for new brakes for your vehicle, do yourself a favor and invest in cryogenically-treated rotors and some Hawk brake pads. It'll be money well-spent. I'd be surprised if a "normal" vehicle under "normal" driving circumstances wouldn't get 250,000 miles from this set-up...

What is a cryogenically-treated rotor?

It's a brake rotor that is slowly and carefully frozen to more than -300 degrees Fahrenheit. It's then held at that temperature for a number of hours before being slowing and carefully returned to room temperature. The slow freeze and slower-thaw aligns the metal molecules and makes a stronger rotor. The stronger rotor resists heat, wear, and warpage better than a traditional rotor. The cryogenic process adds about $25 to the price of each rotor, but it'll more than 3x-4x the life. Money well spent.

So... when your car or truck needs brakes, swing by the TireRack.com and check out their selection of cryogenically-treated rotors and Hawk brake pads. You'll be glad you did. If the Tahoe can eek-out more than 100k miles from a set of brakes, your car will easily eclipse that figure.

Merry Christmas to Me

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While I'm not big on the holiday season, I am thrilled with this year's Christmas gift. Meet the newest addition to the crew: FiFi

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FiFi is a five-year-old female Chihuahua that came to me by way of The Bella Vista Animal Shelter. She has an interesting history, albeit a bit sad.

Her "human mom" had to move into a shelter for battered women, and when she did that, the Bella Vista Animal Shelter (BVAS) took-in FiFi with an agreement that they would take care of her for 30-days. The woman got out of the shelter and picked-up Fifi. A few weeks later, the woman called the BVAS to see if she could surrender FiFi, as (in her words) "FiFi tries to bite the baby."

It's not clear whose baby FiFi was trying to bite, but the BVAS agreed to take FiFi. And so, FiFi entered into shelter care, sometime in October of 2011.

I had been considering a Chihuahua for quite some time - ever since I met Zeus (scroll to the end of the entry, and you'll see him). I didn't want to rush into anything, as I'm not around the house as often as I'd like to be, and I wanted to make sure I could adopt an older dog with the right personality.

I was browsing Petfinder, looking at Chihuahuas and MinPins, when I stumbled across a few dogs that really piqued my interest. As luck would have it, FiFi was located at the BVAS - imagine that!

So, when I went down to the house for Thanksgiving, I took the opportunity to meet FiFi, and, well, I fell for her. How could you not?

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I brought her home, and she's doing great. She loves to snuggle - she'll happily sit on your lap all night, and loves to crawl under any available blanket. In the car, she rides like a champ, and she's 100% house-trained - it's such a dream. It is funny to see her next to the cats; she weighs less than 5-lbs... Shiloh weighs 11-lbs, and Mack weighs 15-lbs... FiFi is literally 50% the size of the cats! And compared to Monica (our Great Dane), FiFi weighs about 5% of what Monica does.

FiFi eats 1/8 of a cup of food in the morning, and 1/8 of a cup at night. A 5-lb bag of food will likely last 6-7 weeks (compared to burning through 100-lbs of food when we had 2 Danes, 1 Boxer-mix, and 1 Whippet). It's unreal how little she eats, but I have to remember that she's about 4.5-lbs at the most...

She's not really a fan of the cold weather... I bought her a few sweaters, which have helped, but she'd much rather run out, do her business, and run back into the house. Once she gets into the house after being outside, she likes to race around at about 100 miles per hour, jumping on and off of the couches like a maniac.

She also likes to sit on top of the couch and look out the window:

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I forgot how nice it is to have a dog in the house. She's thrilled when you come home from work (or running, or the store, or taking the garbage out), yet she calms right down and rolls into a ball on your lap. I like taking her out for walks (they're short, but it's still a walk), and with any luck, I'll teach her a few new tricks (she knows how to sit).

So, there you have it - FiFi, the newest addition. Merry Christmas to me.

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I'm a car guy. I've liked cars for as long as I can remember - there's just something about them that intrigues and excites me. And I like all types of cars; I'm not strictly a sports car fanatic, or a race car fan, or a luxury automobile snob - I appreciate all types of cars, as indicated by my car ownership history. Allow me to go on a tangent for a bit?

My "little black book" of cars that I've owned looks like this:

- 1979 Chevrolet Z-28 Camaro
My first car. Black on black, 350 V8, 4-speed, 3:73:1 rear gears... gorgeous car, but not practical as a daily driver, which is what I tried to do with it. After a few too many highway miles (the motor ran at nearly 4,000 rpm at 65 mph), I bent a pushrod and broke a rocker-arm, which caused some internal engine damage. I tore the car down, ran out of money, and left it sit for years before selling it for pennies on the dollar.

- 1979 Pontiac Bonneville
The winter car that I purchased to relieve the Z-28 from winter duty. I loved this car. It was huge - yes. But it was reliable, comfortable, and loaded with luxury items. It also had a semi-modified 301 V8, so it had a little bit (little being the key word) of pep... I kept this car for several years before selling it to a friend. I drove this car around the country - to NHRA drag races in Ohio, Indianapolis, and Brainerd, and never once had an issue with it.

- 1992 Chevrolet Beretta GT
My first "new" car; purchased it used in 1993 with about 10k on the odometer. Unfortunately it had a random/wild cooling system issue from day one that was never able to be resolved. I sold it after about 6 months because it would randomly overheat and leave me stranded on the side of the road. GM never could find the problem.

- 1993 Ford Mustang Cobra
Whoa Nelly. This car was a beast, at least back in the day... 17" wheels, 4-wheel disc brakes, 240 advertised horsepower, 5-speed, 0-60 in 5.0 seconds. Less than 5,000 were ever produced. I modified it with exhaust, intake, and a bunch of other goodies. Sold it in 1997 with less than 20,000 miles on it.

- 1983 Ford Crown Victoria LTD
Purchased as a winter car/daily driver for the Cobra. Installed an insane stereo system that eventually caused the back windows to leak from the sound pressure. A habitual head gasket issue eventually led me to sell it.

- 1991 Mercury Sable
When the LTD died and I sold the Cobra, I purchased this car from the dealership where I worked as a technician. I drove that car into the ground - it had 145,000 miles on it when I sold it, and was top-notch reliable. Never once had any issue with it. It went through the snow better than most 4x4s, and was comfortable and economical.

- 1998 BMW 528i
My first luxury car. Talk about a great highway cruiser - 5-speed manual, 2.8L inline 6-cylinder, every option available, and it delivered over 30mpg on the highway. Despite being rear wheel drive, it did quite well in the snow. I eventually tired of the high monthly payment (if memory serves, it was around $700/month) and sold it.

- 2002 Chevrolet Tahoe
We still have this vehicle and love it. It has been the most reliable vehicle I've ever owned, and it's been the most comfortable and versatile. Chevrolet nailed this vehicle - even with 125,000 miles on it, it's showing no sign of aging. Simply amazing. The only downside? 13mpg on a good day.

- 2002 VW GTI 337
A real pocket rocket. 1.8L turbo-charged 4-cylinder with 6-speed transmission, 18" BBS wheels, huge brakes, and Recaro seats - all from the factory. Only 1,500 were ever made, and it was a fun car. When I sold it in 2005, I made a huge profit...

- 2005 Honda Element
So close, and yet, no cigar. All-wheel-drive. Tons of cargo space. Practical. Underpowered. Built on the Honda Civic platform, so it couldn't haul or tow anything, despite having a cavernous interior. 4 adults exceeded the gross vehicle weight capacity. The anemic 4-cylinder didn't win any points, either... with a roof rack installed, I had to floor it (literally) to maintain 70mph.

- 2006.5 VW Jetta TDi
Turbo diesel 4-cylinder + German luxury interior + great styling = Win. Nothing like getting 45 mpg all day, every day, while enjoying precise handling and an upscale interior. It wasn't the fastest thing on the road, but it was torquey and fun to drive. Great in the snow, large trunk, comfortable back seats - I really liked this car. Sold it to a friend when I moved back to Wisconsin, and it's still going strong.

- 2003 Chevrolet 1500 Z71 4x4
Gorgeous black truck with grey leather and every single option available. It was simply too large to drive around in Madison. I couldn't park it anywhere, couldn't make a u-turn, and never saw anything north of 13mpg. Sold it in 2-hours after listing it on Craigslist and made a few thousand of profit. Not bad.


And that brings us to today... and the real subject of this entry...

After I sold my truck, I didn't have any idea about what kind of car to purchase. There wasn't anything that struck my fancy, and I was looking for something with practicality, cargo capacity, decent fuel economy, and a reasonable monthly payment.

I considered all sorts of cars, from the Audi A3 to the Subaru WRX to the Chevrolet Malibu, to the Hyundai Sonata, to the Ford Fusion. But none of them wowed me. I couldn't find enough positives to justify any of them. And so, on a complete whim, I purchased a 2009 Toyota Prius.

Yes, it had a hatchback, tons of storage, lots of practicality, and great fuel economy. But I had no idea just how dreadful all of the "little annoyances" were, nor did I appreciate just how quickly and completely the Prius sucks away your soul. Never before have I been in a car that so thoroughly and completely neuters its occupants. The Prius is practical to a fault and insanely annoying.

The only saving grace is the fuel economy. Other than that, the list of hated items is long... and so, I give to you:

10 Things I hate about the Toyota Prius:

Number 10: The keyless system

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Keyless entry is nothing new. We've all had a car with keyless entry - you hit the remote button and your doors lock or unlock. Toyota has taken it a step further - their system is supposed to allow you to enter the car without hitting any unlock buttons; it detects when you're within a certain proximity of the car, and the doors unlock.

Once inside the car, you don't need to place the key into the "ignition" to start the car. In fact, there's no real "key" - you simply place the fob in your pocket and hit the Start button.

The only problem? It rarely works. As you approach the car, it seldom unlocks. If the key happens to be lodged behind your wallet, the car won't start. It's super frustrating.

Locking the car is even more frustrating, because the car often thinks you've left the key inside of the car while attempting to lock it... even though the fob is in your pocket (or hand), which is outside of the car. So you have to do this "walk away, walk toward the car" game in order to lock it. After playing this game a few hundred times, it grows old.


Number 9: The Lawyers Won.

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My particular Prius came equipped with a GPS system, which would normally be a good thing. Except for you can't set or program the GPS while the car is in motion.

"That's smart!" you say? Ok... so, what if you have a passenger with you, and you ask them to find and program a location for gas or food while on your journey? Why can't the passenger program the GPS?

Instead, you have to pull-over, come to a complete stop, and then you can enter in a destination. What's more safe? (a) having your passenger program the destination while you travel at a safe highway speed, or (b) stopping alongside of a highway to program your GPS

My money is on A.

And, the system is "smart enough" to recognize if someone is sitting in the passenger seat... the weight sensor/seat-belt sensor has a hair-trigger - if I set a small bag of groceries on the front seat, the car will ding incessantly until I fasten the passenger seat belt... it thinks there's someone sitting in the front seat that isn't wearing their seat belt, so this church-bell-ringing noise overwhelms everything until you fasten the belt. All for a bag of apples on the front seat...

So, if the car can detect a "passenger" in the front seat, couldn't it then allow you to set the GPS while moving?

No? Thanks Toyota Lawyers.


Number 8: The GPS is Awful

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In addition to not being able to program or adjust your destination while on the move, the GPS itself is otherwise nearly useless. It seems to be truly hit-or-miss as to whether or not it will recognize an address as "valid."

I recently had to visit a friend in a city that has been around for at least 100 years. His address was on "Main Street." I entered in the address, and the GPS told me, "No such street exists in this city."

I tried again - same message. So, I searched for a gas station in that town, and wouldn't you know it, the GPS found the gas station. On Main Street.

Most worthless GPS system ever. Glad it was only a $2,000 option.


Number 7: The Voice Recognition System May Be Deaf.

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The Prius has a voice recognition system? Oh wow! That's great! You can do things without taking your hands off of the steering wheel, so that has to be safe!

....sigh.... If only it worked.

Here's how the voice recognition experience usually goes:

Me: (presses voice activation button) "72 degrees" (to set the temperature to 72)
Prius: (ding!) "Turning off GPS navigation."

Me: (presses voice activation button again) "seven-teeee-twooooo-degreeeees"
Prius: (ding!) "Setting fan speed to medium"

Me: ARGH! (presses voice activation button again) "sevvvvennnn-teeeeee-twooooo de-"
Prius: (ding!) "That command is not available in this function."

Red-faced and mad, I have to manually navigate to and press the 3 key strokes that it takes to set the temperature to 72 degrees.

The system never works - unless you count successfully raising the driver's blood pressure. Then it works every time.


Number 6: Lawyers Win Again

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Whenever you press one of the multi-function screen buttons, the system displays this lengthy legal disclaimer/warning that includes the line, "Watching this screen while driving can cause a serious accident."

Really? So, why do you (Toyota) display this dangerous warning screen for 10+ seconds each time I try to launch a new function? This screen appears when you activate functions that include: using the GPS, setting the climate controls, adjusting the audio functions, or flipping to the "information status" screen.

Lawyers... protecting us from ourselves and failing miserably.


Number 5: The Gas Gauge Lies

Here's my fuel gauge, with 122 miles burned from the tank. It shows 3/4 full:

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And here's the gauge again, 80 miles later:

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And the problem? It's never accurate. Aside from dropping 3 full bars in 80 miles of travel, the car always lies about how much fuel and/or range you have before running out of fuel. It's 2010, people! Can't we engineer a semi-accurate gas gauge? My freaking wrist watch and phone can pinpoint my location to within a few feet using satellites that are hundreds of miles away and in orbit, but my gas gauge can't determine how much fuel I have in the tank?

Seriously...


Number 4: The Wheels Weld Themselves To The Hub

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This one irks me because for a car that has so many "technological and engineering advancements," I'd like to think the folks responsible for those innovations would have a very basic understanding of chemical reactions...

You see, the Prius uses a technology called "regenerative braking" to help charge the batteries when you apply the brakes. Pretty neat, eh? Well, yeah. But, the Prius also uses aluminum wheels with steel hubs. (The hub is the part that the wheel is secured to and held on to with lug nuts)

Anyone who has ever taken grade school chemistry should know about something called Galvanic corrosion. It's a chemical reaction that takes place when electrical charges are introduced between two incompatible metals, such as steel and aluminum. The net result? The pieces basically weld themselves together...

As mentioned, the Prius generates electricity when braking, and as such, the aluminum wheel literally welds itself to the steel hub. Which makes for difficult times when attempting to rotate your tires every 5,000 miles. I literally have to kick the wheels with all of my might (and these legs ride/run/squat/press a lot of weight on a regular basis) to break the wheel free from the hub.

Come on, Toyota...


Number 3: The Window Locks & Door Locks Are Dumb

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Door locks and window locks are a good thing, right? Yes, provided they function properly. Unfortunately, when you activate the window locks on the Prius, it prevents everyone from raising or lowering the windows. Including the driver.

And the door locks... the car doesn't auto-lock when you begin moving, nor does it auto-unlock when you park it. Really? My 1992 Beretta did that.


Number 2: The Dashboard - Who Designed This Thing?

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Dashboards are supposed to provide valuable information at a glance. But surprise - the Prius doesn't do that.

Rather than share information like engine coolant temperature, oil pressure, or alternator/charging system condition, the Prius proudly tells me such things as whether or not my rear defroster is on, if I have the HVAC system set to auto or manual, if I have my headlights on, or if I have the cruise control activated. It even proudly tells me it's "READY" - meaning the car is on... sigh.

Really? Those things were more important than knowing the status of vital engine components and conditions? Why couldn't the Toyota brain-trust have placed a small indicator light on the rear defrost button itself, rather than displaying it on the dashboard?

And the dashboard design is terrible - it's set extremely far forward on the dash and is right at the base of the windshield, which causes a reflective glare from the speedometer on the windshield at night.


Number 1: The ABS/Traction Control System WILL kill you, eventually.

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I couldn't get a photo of the ABS/Traction light while it was on, so I used this representation instead...

Here's the deal. Imagine you're driving on a perfectly flat, perfectly clear, perfectly dry road, and you encounter a stop light. You begin to apply your brakes and slow the car in a controlled manner. Now, assume there is a set of railroad tracks (or some other imperfection, such as a pothole, rut, or some other type of irregularity) that you must cross while approaching the stoplight.

If you have your foot applied on the brake pedal and you encounter an imperfection in the road, the brakes will literally disengage and the car will speed-up until you clear the imperfection. It is truly unnerving and unsettling.

Even though I know it will happen, it still surprises me every single time. It doesn't matter if you press the brakes harder; the system takes over and releases the brakes because I suspect the ABS thinks the car is skidding. It's the least intelligent ABS system I've ever experienced, and it's dangerous.

It's not just me... Google search for "Prius speeds up over bumps while braking" or "Prius brake stutter while braking" and you'll find thousands of complaints about it.

Where are the lawyers now?


Miscellaneous gripes

So, I have a few other miscellaneous complaints - none are really "top 10 worthy" but are gripes nonetheless. Far be it from me to pass on an opportunity to kvetch or complain about something, so here are a few more items to consider:

It's a hybrid

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Contrary to popular belief, hybrid technology isn't new. The first hybrid cars existed as far back as the late 1800s, and they used regenerative braking, battery packs, electric motors, and many of the same technological components as today's Prius.

Batteries are bad. They're bad for a number of reasons. They're heavy. They have a very finite life cycle, and WILL need to be replaced at some point. They're toxic to the environment when produced and are toxic to dispose of. To manufacture them, the components are shipped to four continents - how "eco-friendly" is that? The ore is strip-mined in Canada, the ore is refined in China, the cells are assembled in the UK, and the car is built in Japan.

The technology is also extremely finicky and difficult to service. Despite being an ASE-certified technician with seven years experience, there's no way I'd ever attempt to work on the hybrid system myself. And that's both a shame and scary.


The Fuel Bladder Sucks

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As I mentioned in a previous entry, the Prius nearly stranded me thanks to the inaccurate gas gauge.

The root cause of this (aside from bad engineering) is likely to be the fuel bladder system that the Prius uses. Rather than using a rigid, fixed volume gas tank, the Prius uses a bladder system, similar to a hot water bottle.

When the bladder becomes cold, it doesn't expand as freely as it does when warm, and as such, the capacity diminishes. So, rather than holding a full 12-gallons of fuel, it may only hold 10.5 when cold... that's more than 60 miles of capacity gone. And for what benefit?


No power outlets or amenities, for that matter

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What modern car doesn't have several power outlets? There are two (2) power outlets in the Prius - one located very inconveniently under the dash near the passenger footwell, and one located more inconveniently in the center console. Try having your backseat passengers charge their cell phone while on a road trip... it's comical.

The general lack of amenities is a letdown, especially on a car that cost $31,000. Yep, that's right - my 2009 Prius carried a sticker price of more than $31,000. And at that price, it didn't include heated seats, power seats, or satellite radio. Leather without heated seats is semi-criminal.


It's a Soul Sucker

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The Prius may be practical, but it's anything but fun or inspiring. In fact, it's a vampire that slowly erases your identity and suffocates your soul - Twilight has nothing on the Prius. Every trip becomes one mired in tedium. You can't get excited when driving this car. It's an egg on wheels. I dare you to find the words "sexy," "invigorating," "spirited," or "refreshing" and "Prius" used in the same paragraph... the Prius is the ultimate in plain vanilla, milquetoast, dry toast, pasty oatmeal automotive offerings.


So there you have it. The top ten reasons why I literally hate the Prius. So why not get a new car?

There are a couple of reasons... despite the lying gas gauge, I do enjoy the fact that I can drive the car for 9-12 days and only use $28 in fuel.

I do appreciate that I can fit several bicycles in the back; I've hauled a recliner home in it; I moved most of my possessions to the new residence in it... so, yeah - it can hold a few things.

I like the inexpensive car payment and cheap insurance. I guess when you try to insure a car that has 90-horsepower, the insurance Gods shine brightly upon you.

I like that the car is "plain" - it draws no attention from the authorities, and anonymity in that circle is fine by me.

But that's about it... the list of likes is quite a bit shorter than the dislikes... So to address the question about getting another car - the answer is simple: there's nothing that I like better right now.

As I mentioned earlier, I considered several other cars - the Audi A3, A4, or A6 are all near the top of my list for cars that I'd really like to own. But I can't justify a payment that's nearly twice that of the Prius. The same holds true for cars like the Subaru WRX or a gently used Mercedes-Benz or BMW.

I considered a Mini Cooper Clubman, but it was too small to be practical; I couldn't even fit a single bike in it. I looked at the new Malibu, which is gorgeous and nicely appointed, but again, it's a true sedan - no room for a bike or even a larger dog.

Any true sedan or coupe isn't a viable option; sure, they'd be fun, comfortable, and would have more personality, but I'd have to pony-up for and deal with things like bike racks, luggage racks, and so on. Any SUV would provide cargo room, but the fuel costs would eat me alive, and the insurance would be nearly double that of the Prius.

And so I'm stuck with this soul leech. Maybe I need to play PowerBall a little more often...

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2011 is the previous archive.

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