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2020 Mazda 3 AWD – PRactical doesn’t have to Mean boring

2020 Mazda 3 AWD – PRactical doesn’t have to Mean boring

I’ll admit it. I’m typically sweet on Mazdas. I don’t own one and nobody’s paying me to say that, I just like the down to earth functionality designed into them. I also like that you can push them a little carder than comparable cars before they cry uncle. In a word, they’re fun. How does the Mazda 3 AWD stack up?

A-number-one, I dig the aesthetic. Angry headlight and nose-down posture lend an air of aggression to the relatively mild Mazda. I even think its little overbite is dreadfully charming. The black 18″ alloy wheels go wonderfully with the “polymetal gray metallic” paint. Some may find the proportions of this hatch a little unusual; perhaps a little rump heavy. But they work for me. Of course, I think the second gen Cadillac CTS Coupes are among the most gorgeous cars designed in the 21st century, so consider that when weighing my opinions on a car’s good or bad looks.


The deep red leather seats, which Mazda refers to in their build sheet as simply “red”, look stunning in both quality and color. The dash is wrapped in the same “red” and features laser straight French seams. In fact, all the upholstery in the car is above average, especially when you consider this is not a luxury car. I’m a fan of the way Mazda puts their media controls in the console. There’s a learning curve, but they’re logically laid out and above all you can use them without taking your eyes off the road. Bluetooth connectivity is remarkably fast, like instant, and there’s a handy dandy QI charger for all your resonant inductive coupling needs.

Laying the rear seats down pinches front seat leg room a little, and you’re going to have trouble operating the console lid. However, it does open up the back end to haul a surprising amount of junk. Or just one old dirty compressor.
This is not an easy car to see out of. The back window looks tiny from the drivers seat and the blind spots created by the c pillars are some of the biggest I’ve seen. This car might be more fun with a manual shift rather than the six speed “sport mode” automatic, but I don’t know if it would be better per se.

Under the hood, a 2.5 liter naturally aspirated four banger churns out 186 horsepower and equally as many torques. An electric emergency brake will prevent you and your no account buddies from sliding around the parking lot behind the movie theater. Mazda does a good job of prioritizing the driving experience of their cars. Even the humble 3 has above average feedback from the brakes and steering. It’s fun to push the car through curves. One issue I noticed is that the A/C struggled a little on warmer days. It made me wonder how it would do during the Texas summers

It could be a little more fun, and at $31,470 it could be a little less expensive. Of course you could save some scratch if you elected to forego the 425 dollar illuminated sill plates. There’s nothing wrong with the car though, and this AWD model is sure to be a hit with folks that experience snow and ice each year. The Mazda 3 delivers a typically Mazda experience. Maybe not the fastest, but great feedback from the brakes and steering wheel and enough zip from under the hood to keep us engaged.


2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon – I Was Wrong and I’m Sorry

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon – I Was Wrong and I’m Sorry

I was driving 80mph when a white Jeep Gladiator blasted by me in the right lane.
“How dare he? And in such a vehicle!” Bitterness and disdain washed over me like an acid flashback washes over a Deadhead boomer. “Who buys these things?” I shouted, shaking my fist at the inside of my windshield.

Visions of silly decals, angry headlight kits, and aftermarket wheels and mud tires that never seem to get dirty danced in my head. I had a long-held opinion that Jeeps were very expensive toys that didn’t make a good daily driver. When I saw that white Gladiator pass me in the slow lane I felt the familiar ire rise in my heart. “Oh look at that, jeep stuck a box on the back of their Wrangler.” I was wrong.

To me, Jeeps fell into about three categories:

  1. Mall Crawlers – usually a Wrangler Dressed out to look off-roady but never really make it off the asphalt
  2. Clapped-out Cherokees- which are usually heard or smelled before they’re seen. Often lifted with last week’s mud still visible on the fenders. Sometimes driven by zealous teenage boys.
  3. Legit offroaders – the hardcore, don’t tread on me, I took my swaybars off for “more articulation bro”, no-top when it’s 30 degrees out types. Usually seen with bald mud tires. Their owners should be avoided unless you’re ready to enter an inescapable pit of conversation about approach angles, locking differentials and lamentations about body lifts.


In October, Texas’ finest automotive journalists descend on the Texas Hill Country. It’s called the Texas Truck Rodeo, and it’s a crucible where one truck is elevated above all others and selected as the Texas Auto Writers Truck of Texas (read “the world”). The Jeep Gladiator would be there and I wanted to drive one.


I got to spend some quality time with this firecracker red ragtop Rubicon. Initially, the proportions look a little funny but you get used to it. In 10 years when they change it, we’ll look back at this design and say, “why couldn’t they have left it alone.” Jeep engineers have done a good job staying true to the no-nonsense, functional design aesthetic while embellishing it here and there to offer some style.


Thankfully, the kitschy stuff kept to a minimum and the marketing impulse to stencil Jeep on every panel has been curbed. When you sell something that looks like nothing else (aside from a Mahindra Roxor but that’s another article) you really don’t have to advertise that way. Batman didn’t have to paint “Batmobile” on the side of his ride, the wings, afterburner and menacing black paint give it away.




Inside the Gladiator Rubicon, you’ll find a heated steering wheel and heated leather seats. Pretty swank for a vehicle with removable doors. In the dash, there’s an 8.4 inch display that controls the Alpine sound system. It displays the navigation and some other goodies too. A delightful array of buttons and switches for locking the differentials and disconnecting the swaybars occupies space ahead of the shift levers.


Seats are firm but comfortable. The second row has space for adults. This jeep comes with the optional wireless Bluetooth speaker that tucks away into a special compartment behind the second row. Pretty neat, but it’s a $295 option I might skip.



Under the hood, there’s a 3.6 liter V6 connected to an eight-speed automatic transmission. This sends power to the front and rear Dana 44 axles with electronic locking differentials and electronic swaybar disconnects. The power on-road is good, and offroad the Jeep feels plenty torquey.  Fox 2.0 shocks come standard on the Gladiator Rubicon.


Vehicles on mud tires ride rougher and make extra noise. Combine that with a ragtop and you get what should be a cacophonous ride. I’m not saying the gladiator Rubicon is bending the laws of physics, but it is much quieter than I anticipated. It’s surprisingly smooth when you consider it’s off-road capabilities. I listened closely as I drove on asphalt and only identified one rattle. This Jeep was fitted with adaptive cruise control which makes for a relaxing interstate experience. Instead of the rattly, squeaky Jeep I expected, I was met with a level of sophistication and comfort I hadn’t anticipated.

When it’s time to play in the dirt, the Gladiator shifts effortlessly from two to four-wheel-drive on the fly. There’s gratification in grabbing the lever of a manually shifted transfer case that a push-button doesn’t deliver. It’s also reassuring to know that electrical gremlins won’t stand between me and four-wheel drive when I need it most.

I especially liked the forward-facing trail cam. It’s like having a spotter outside on the trail. Jeep even fitted it with a little washer nozzle to clean it off when the going gets muddy. The Jeeps handled the off-road course without breaking a sweat.


Jeep claims the Gladiator Rubicon gets 17 mpg around town and 22 on the highway. These numbers aren’t great, but next year Jeep is offering their first diesel option which they claim is going to be the most efficient Wrangler ever.


Zealots and kooky branding aside, there’s nothing like a jeep. Be ready to save your pennies and nickles though because Jeep isn’t in the business of giving these things away. The base price for a 2020 Gladiator Rubicon is $44,600. If you want it dressed up the way this one is, you’ll be in it for closer to $59k. Of course, you don’t have to go with a Rubicon package and a no-frills Sport model can be had for $33k.

Due to some silly biases developed in my adolescence, I have largely ignored Jeep. After getting to know the Gladiator I see that it’s peerless offroad and remarkably civilized when you hit the pavement. It’s so nice to be pleasantly surprised. It almost takes the sting out of being so wrong. Almost.IMG_9460.JPG

2019 Volvo XC60 Inscription – Overtly Refined & Elegant, Subtly Swedish

2019 Volvo XC60 Inscription – Overtly Refined & Elegant, Subtly Swedish

Back in 2002, Volvo build their first SUV, the XC90. It drew on design elements from the wagons. From that point, Volvo’s aesthetic evolved from its boxy beginnings to what must be some of the best looking, most refined cars on the road.



The XC60’s looks have a subtle nod to some all-weather performance but it doesn’t look bulky or overtly off-roady. Instead, it looks sophisticated and capable.


Black and silver 19-inch alloy wheels complement the Pine Grey metallic paint. The vertical taillights are a holdover design elements from old Volvo wagons. I’m a sucker for dual outlet exhaust and the Volvo checks this box.



As pleasant as the exterior is, the real story of the XC60 is told inside. I’d question the motives of anyone buying a car with white upholstery. And you’d have to be nuts to buy one as a family car. But good lord it is gorgeous inside. Set in the dash is the nine inch touch screen that controls everything from the seat massage, to navigation to the optional Bowers and Wilkins premium sound system.


Every surface is sumptuous. The materials are all exceptional and the craftsmanship is something you can appreciate for the life of the car. For example, the airconditioning vents controls are not just silver-colored plastic. They’re aluminum. That means they were machined to fit and function, not squirted into a mold. It also means you’ll feel the quality each time you reach to adjust the vent. It’s cold or hot to the touch rather than the dead feeling plastic offers. There’s room in the back for adults and there’s ample cargo space behind the second row.



There’s an evident pride taken design and execution here. I especially like the subtle nods to this car’s nationality throughout the cabin.



The ride and drive are as refined as the interior accommodations. Air ride at all four corners ensures the ride is buttery smooth. I love that the ride height can be adjusted on the go by fiddling with the drive mode settings. Volvo’s 2.0 liter four-banger takes advantage of a super charger and a turbo. This double puffer set up means the XC60 has 316 horsepower to play with.

Using a super charger and a turbo allows the engine to get the benefits of both. The super lends it’s linear, predictable power and the turbo gives you the punch in the higher revs. It makes for above-average performance. The Volvo is whisper quiet on the freeway. And Volvo claims it’ll get 27 mpg on the highway and 19 around town.


I love the direction Volvo is going. They’re truly special. You feel it when you’re seated behind the wheel. They’re not setting the world on fire with outrageous designs that will be dated next year. The sense of pride and craftsmanship on the part of Volvo designers is evident throughout the car, especially inside.

This XC60 with these features has a price point just shy of $65k. That’s a lot of money, especially considering it’s not even Volvo’s biggest SUV. However, it’s dead nice to drive and to behold. Now, if you must have a new XC60 but you don’t have that kind of dough don’t despair. If you’re willing to suffer the indignity of a non-heated steering wheel, or perhaps you could drag yourself into a car without Nappa leather you can save $750 and $2,200 respectively. Continue with the austerity measures and you can whittle to price down to a paltry $45 grand.


2019 Acura RDX A-Spec -You’ll Want To Put A Ring On It

2019 Acura RDX A-Spec -You’ll Want To Put A Ring On It

The last Acura RDX I drove was the 2017 model. I drove 300 miles in one direction with my girlfriend and drove back with a fiance. That car’s performance was flawless albeit unremarkable. For 2019, Acura introduced its third-generation RDX. It’s more beautiful and more comfortable. We took this one to San Antonio to watch our friends tie the knot. Thus forever solidifying a link between nuptial processes and Acura’s RDX in my mind. 



For the 2019 model year, the RDX got a makeover. Up front, there’s a much larger grill opening with a massive Acura emblem floating in the center. I think it works. The  A-Spec trim offers 20″ shark gray wheels. They look fantastic under the platinum white pearl body color.  The aggressive body styling and dual exhaust hint at the A-spec’s performance-tuned suspension.




It’s red! While the color may not be for everyone, the execution is undeniable. For those folks looking to make a more subtle statement, the A-spec also comes in black. The build quality of the seat covers is above average even for a luxury car. There’s lovely red decorative stitching.  Seats are firm. After hitting tons of traffic and taking six and a half hours to get to San Antonio, my hind parts were tender. Over time the seats may break in, but how often do we really spend that much time behind the wheel?


I didn’t love the trackpad. Not because it’s an especially bad example of one, but because they’re impractical. My opinion must be the minority though because these things are popping up in everything from Acuras to Aston Martins. I think rather than the distracting trackpad technology which mimics a laptop, manufacturers should implement touch screens within easy reach of the driver.


Under the cargo area, there’s a clever storage arrangement. Sadly, there’s no spare tire, not even a donut. Just an air pump and some good-luck goo. The second row seats can be folded down to create an open cargo space to haul all sorts of stuff.


Under the hood, a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder churns out 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque and it makes a nice noise doing it. The exhaust note when the V-Tec kicks in is particularly agreeable, so my foot found the floor more than often than a less childish foot would have. It’s not terribly fuel-efficient. In the 800 plus miles I put on the car, it averaged 21 mpg according to the trip computer. Most of these were highway miles, some in excess of 85 mph. I bet this car is capable of better mileage with a different driver. 



After arriving in San Antonio the groom lamented to me that the water pump failed in the 60s Ford Galaxie they chose as their getaway car. I immediately volunteered the shiny white Acura.  IMG_78562

After a lovely ceremony and reception my wife, the A-Spec and I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the couple’s first car ride as man and wife. I think white lace sets off the red interior nicely. Congratulations Mr. and Mrs. Murphy!



In my previous article about the RDX, I concluded that it would be a nice car to buy your mom. Two-row, mid-sized, luxury SUVs are definitely aimed at moms.  I think the newest iteration of the RDX broadens its appeal. I also think it’s the best looking option in its class. This car with these options will set buyers back $46,895. That’s not cheap, but this is a luxury SUV that really ticks all the boxes. Its Honda heritage is bound to make it reliable. The ride and performance are gratifying and the looks are exceptional. All that and you still beat the Lexus RX 350 sticker by nearly $13,000. That’s what I call value.


Bye Dad, Thanks For The Ride

Bye Dad, Thanks For The Ride

For a split second my stomach was suspended weightless in my abdomen, just like at the top of a roller coaster descent. The four tires of my father’s red Isuzu Space Cab pickup had left the gravel road and were on their downward trajectory toward terra firma. As the truck landed, all three boy scouts and the grown boy at the wheel grinned, laughed and agreed that was the best jump yet.

We were headed to the campsite which was at the end of a dirt road that wandered through 2,500 acres that the Boy Scouts of America used for the betterment of young men. In an effort to keep the speed down on long straight stretches of this road, whoever was in charge elected to build, or more likely elected to use young men’s free labor to build, improvised earthen speed bumps. In my mind’s eye, these mounds were two and a half feet tall or so and stretched the width of the one lane gravel road. Nobody in their right mind would take one at speed. My dad would tilt to them like a knight with enough speed to momentary liberate the truck from the Earth in a flourish of gravel dust.

I was used to this. There was a poorly designed bridge on a back road near our house. When you hit it at 65 or so the suspension would compress at the bottom of the approach and rebound at the top launching the car. The wheels would touch down again on the other side of the bridge.

His mother and father lived down a labyrinth of gravel roads in rural Texas. When we would go visit them my dad would powerslide each corner. The feeling of sliding sideways in a car never gets old. He did all these wild maneuvers with poise and control. He also wrecked more cars than anyone I’ve ever met. The Saturn, the F-150, the Isuzu etc. I was only in a couple of those accidents. As far as I know, he never considered that it might not be a super idea to jump your daily driver. His brother tells a story of how he wrecked three cars in one day, which has to be a record. He got the first stuck in a creek and proceeded to thrash two more cars trying to unstick the first one.


He took me to a monster truck rally when I was a boy. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have from my childhood. The huge tires, the smoke, the sideshow vehicles like the firebreathing-car-eating robot dinosaur. And of course the noise! All that fuel turned into horsepower and hydrocarbons right before my young eyes, creating an un-earthly racket that invaded my ears (no hearing protection, it was the ’90s) and rattled my little chest.

When the time came to teach us kids how to drive, my mother’s temperament proved too tightly wound to tolerate the inevitable and innumerable close calls teen drivers have. When she was in the passenger seat, the tension in the car was palpable.  So the task fell to my father. He taught my sister to drive stick by taking her to the steepest hill for miles which just so happened to have a stop sign at the crest. A hard lesson for sure, but to this day the girl can drive a manual.

I remember waiting until the last possible moment to brake each time I’d turn left off the two-lane highway a mile from the house. He’d say, “you’re scaring the bejeebers out of me.” I still don’t know what a bejeeber is. Once, I was maybe 15, he let me take the wheel of his green F-150 on the gravel roads leading to his parent’s house. I wanted to step the tail-end out like I watched him do so many times. Trouble is, he never told me how he did it. So I ended up carrying way too much speed into the corner and skidding into a ditch. He was not happy. I didn’t know what to call it then, but that was probably my first experience with understeer. It wouldn’t be my last.


My dad died at the end of March 2019. Before that, he was sick for more than a decade. Frontal lobe dementia is what the doctors called it. It was protracted and painful for everyone around him. I witnessed his decline at home and eventual move to an assisted living facility. He spent his last six years there, in a continually worsening state of confusion.

I’m still trying to sort out what his death means to me. But one thing has occurred to me. I’m much more like him than I ever imagined, and that my driving shenanigans are a direct result of the adventures we had together.

He had a feral streak and a tendency to do mischief. To my knowledge, he was not a deep thinker or a terribly sensitive guy. He was the impulsive older brother to my two aunts and two uncles. A lot of the time I think he treated me more like a little brother than a son. When he was young, he was very clever at taking non-functioning machinery and electronics apart, diagnosing their malady, and restoring them to working order.

My dad and I didn’t see eye to eye on most things. Whether due to his illness, or some inborn stubbornness, he was frequently difficult to communicate with. I have to thank him though. Thanks for the handful of events he took me to that helped shape my love of cars. The arena-cross races where he did his best to explain the difference between two and four stroke dirt bikes. Thanks for the Volkswagen meet in Waxahachie when I was 14 or 15, where I saw a ’60s era VW transporter pull a wheelie on a drag strip. And I got to ride in a bizarre bug that was made to look like a blue whale. It was complete with a C02 activated spout and a tail that moved up and down as the car rolled along. Thanks for exposing me to fine cinema like Smokey and the Bandit, and all the chase scenes in the classic Bond films.

Finally, I have to thank him for whatever genetic anomaly he passed on that makes me mechanically inclined. Whether by nurture or by nature, I also inherited his feral impulsiveness, which I have mostly under control. I wish he could have seen me become a dad. I wish he were here and in command of his faculties to appreciate his grandson.

Life is weird. I doubt I’ll ever powerslide a car again, or turn off the traction control in the rain without appreciating where the impulse comes from. Even though he’d never be nominated for father of the year, I have love for my dad. I don’t wish I had a different childhood, because without it, I wouldn’t be here typing this. But I won’t be drifting or jumping my truck with my son and his friends on board.