Driving the Nissan GT-R

Nissan GT-RNormally the words “Nissan” and “supercar” don’t belong in the same sentence, but the automotive world is full of surprises.

The Nissan GT-R is widely regarded as one of the world’s most capable performance cars, and one that can routinely embarrass products of more prestigious manufacturers like Porsche.

I recently got the chance to see what all of the fuss is about during a short drive in New York’s Bear Mountain State Park.

When the GT-R arrived in the United States as a 2009 model, it was an anomaly. It was hard to picture a fairly-heavy four-seat coupe that could lap Germany’s infamous Nurburgring faster than a contemporary Porsche 911 Turbo, and earn the nickname “Godzilla.”

That is, unless you were privy to the generations of GT-R that preceded it. Even before it hit U.S. showrooms, the GT-R had a ready-made fan base of people who had “driven” its predecessors in video games like Gran Turismo.

The current R35 generation stepped things up, too. Previous versions were actually hot-rodded Skyline coupes, and went by the proper name Skyline GT-R. However, the R35 is a bespoke design.

IMG_2141Under the hood is a 3.8-liter, twin turbocharged V6, connected to a six-speed, dual-clutch transaxle and all-wheel drive.

Nissan has consistently improved this powertrain since the GT-R’s launch. Where 2009 models produced 480 horsepower and 463 pound-feet of torque, the 2015 GT-R I drove boasts 545 hp and 463 lb-ft.

That’s enough to get the 2015 GT-R from 0 to 60 mph in 2.7 seconds. If that’s not good enough, there’s an even more extreme GT-R NISMO model available.

I didn’t get the chance to test that performance during my short drive, which was on a slow road littered with cops. That didn’t mean I wasn’t humbled by the GT-R’s awesome reputation.

Godzilla was remarkably civil in this situation. Aside from the wonderfully-loud exhaust, its supercar nature is ratcheted down in everyday driving. The controls respond with immediacy but aren’t twitchy and, with the adjustable suspension in a less-aggressive setting, the ride is smooth.

In fact, the only real downside is that it seems like a waste to not drive the GT-R fast.

I leaned into the throttle briefly and was rewarded with a ferocious burst of acceleration. Given how docile the car had been up to that point, it was a revelation akin to seeing the machine elves in the walls of reality.

So while the GT-R is perfectly enjoyable to drive at normal speeds, its specialness doesn’t really become apparent until you prod it.

All things considered, that’s not much of a flaw. Helmets aren’t that expensive.

Nissan GT-R

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Driving the Jaguar F-Type

2014 Jaguar F-Type V8  S convertibleYesterday, I had the pleasure of driving the 2014 Jaguar F-Type, something that’s been years in the making.

Just over two years, to be precise. The F-Type will always be special to me not just because it’s a gorgeous, powerful sports car, but because it’s more or less the first car I’ve followed as an automotive journalist from start to finish.

I’d only been freelancing for Digital Trends for a few months in the spring of 2012, but the New York Auto Show was just a Metro-North ride away, and DT was happy for the coverage.

The star attraction of the Jaguar-Land Rover press conference was supposed to be a convertible version of the Range Rover Evoque crossover, but it turned out to be a red herring.

What really grabbed headlines was Jaguar’s announcement that it would build a new sports car, followed by a short video with a sound byte from its glorious V8, and a photo of a camouflaged prototype.

Naturally, the car wouldn’t be unveiled for some time but, after months of speculation, spy shots, auto show events, and media drives, the F-Type is in showrooms.

I finally caught up with this sensational sports car at an International Motor Press Association event in Bear Mountain, New York. My driving time was limited, and rain meant the top had to stay up, but it was definitely worth the wait.

The cabin of the F-Type is snug but well-appointed, like a luxurious jet fighter. The growl from the engine in this V8 S model makes a stereo superfluous.

As the name states, that engines has eight cylinders. It displaces 5.0 liters and, with help from a supercharger, produces 495 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. Jaguar says it will do 0 to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds.

Some might decry the lack of a manual transmission, but the eight-speed automatic seemed up to the task of sending power to the rear wheels as I guided the F-Type around curvy Hudson Valley roads.

There are many sports cars with reportedly-good road manners, but this Jag is genuinely enjoyable in an everyday context.

The interior is comfortable, and the overrun-crackle emitted by the exhaust in “Dynamic” mode is fantastic, even when you’re stuck behind slow-moving traffic.

Whenever a carmaker’s announcement involves words like “sport” and “supercharged,” you expect the resulting automobile to be good. With the Jaguar F-Type, it’s nice to be able to confirm that it is.

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Even cheap cars can be cool

1972 Datsun 510 SedanA common narrative in the car industry these days is that “Millennials” don’t like cars. They’re more interested in playing with smartphones, the experts say.

Yet there might be another explanation: there are no appealing cars.

Whether they’re a recent college graduate or a high school student competing with a mother of two for a job at McDonald’s, young people today aren’t exactly having an easy time in the job market.

So it stands to reason that if a Millennial is looking for a new car, they’re probably looking for something cheap.

With a base price of $12,780 (including destination), the 2014 Nissan Versa sedan is one of the cheapest new cars around. It’s also tragically boring.

From its flabby exterior to its modest powertrain, the Versa seems to have been designed with indifference; a car built to a price. Then again, what else can you expect from the bottom of the market?

If you shopped for a small, economical car in 1971, you could have picked up a Datsun 510 two-door sedan–the Versa’s direct ancestor–for $1,990, according to Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car. That’s about $11,000 today.

2013 Nissan VersaAt first glance, the 510 doesn’t seem better than the Versa. It’s not fast, it’s not pretty, and compared to the average car of 2014 it’s as basic as Tevye’s milk wagon.

Yet the 510 excels where it counts.

For one, the 510 is known as a great car to drive; Datsun used the BMW 1600 as a benchmark, after all. It was even raced by the likes of Paul Newman and Bob Sharp.

The simple styling has endeared this boxy Datsun to many, who view it as honest and, yes, cool.

The 510 is on its way to becoming one of the first truly collectible Japanese cars. Do you think collectors will pay attention to the Versa in 40 years?

Clearly, a cheap car can be cool. The Versa isn’t, which may be partly why Millennials don’t want to buy it and other cars like it.

Nissan itself seems to recognize this. At the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, the Japanese automaker unveiled a pair of concept cars, the IDx Freeflow and IDx NISMO.

Nissan IDx Freeflow / IDx NISMOTake one look at these square show cars and it’s hard not to think of the 510. The performance-oriented NISMO version even wears a variation of the 1970s Datsun racing colors.

In its press materials for the IDx pair, Nissan said it involved Millennials in the design process, and found that they wanted a basic, more “authentic” car. Sounds a lot like the 510 to me.

A production IDx wouldn’t replace the Versa or any other entry-level Nissan, but hopefully the concepts will show that subjective qualities are just as important as practicality, fuel economy, or reliability.

If people are going to continue viewing their cars as more than just interchangeable appliances, carmakers have to give them a reason to.

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Crimea conundrum

It’s Friday, which means conservatives are decrying President Barack Obama for harming the country.

Actually, they do that every day.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has made the President for accusations that he is weak from, among others Senator John McCain and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Obama has already called for sanctions, and is working with European nations to present a united diplomatic front in the face of Russia’s aggression.

Yet some seem to think more drastic action is necessary. The question is: what kind of action?

If the recent history of Republican foreign policy is any indication, the American people probably won’t like where they want to go.

Prominent conservatives can call Obama all the names they want, but their record is far from laudable.

The war in Afghanistan is just winding down, and I’m pretty sure Obama didn’t start it.

Neutralizing Al Qaeda was a legitimate military goal, but the Bush Administration allowed its military adventure in Central Asia to drag on through its two terms without making any serious attempt to end it.

That’s an example of gross foreign-policy incompetence. It’s a testament to this country’s short memory and political partisanship that one of the main architects of the bungled Afghan war is still considered a credible source for criticism of the current President.

In general, the kick-ass-because-America method of military intervention rarely produces the desired results. Did we ever find those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Even smaller-scale interventions tend to become massive embarrassments. Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Granada wasted resources and accomplished nothing, while his support of the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua set the stage for one of the biggest scandals in American presidential history.

These types of interventions only succeed if there is a clear goal, and there really isn’t one here.

Yes, Putin’s annexation of Crimea violates the sovereignty of Ukraine. However, the U.S. doesn’t have a clear interest here, which makes choosing a course of action difficult.

There’s no physical U.S. presence to be defended, or concrete issues to serve as bargaining chips. The U.S. wants Russia out of Crimea simply to maintain the international balance of power, and because it’s the right thing to do.

Would it be worth going to war with Russia over a piece of land that most Americans probably can’t locate on a map?

I’d wager most people would answer “no,” but subjectively, diplomatic solutions like sanctions seem inadequate with Russian troops walking the streets of Sevastopol.

That’s where the conservatives come in. They’re always looking for opportunities to bash the President, and people’s confused feelings about Crimea have created the perfect opportunity.

So, yes, Crimea is a problem that needs to be dealt with. But blaming Obama isn’t a solution.

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Private risk for public good

Convent StationIt may be a train station in New Jersey, but Convent Station is a nice place to be.

Situated along a relatively quiet stretch of track and a bike path in Madison, the building itself looks like something plucked from a Lionel catalog.

Yet this picturesque station serves nothing but the College of St. Elizabeth and, perhaps, a few guests from the nearby Madison Hotel. There’s another station about 2 miles away, built on a viaduct that runs through the center of town.

Today’s commuter rail planners would probably lay a concrete pad, plant some ticket machines, and call the job done. Luckily, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad had greater ambitions.

Called simply the “Lackawanna” by train buffs, this coal-hauling line had one of the most impressive physical plants of any railroad in history. It pioneered the use of steel-reinforced concrete, which it used for everything from grandiose stations and bridges to humble signal towers.

It would have been cheaper to build a smaller, less substantial station for this somewhat unimportant location, just as it would have been cheaper not to span a valley at Nicholson, Pennsylvania with a massive concrete viaduct, or create an earthen berm to minimize the gradient.

NJ Transit commuter train leaving Convent Station.Yet the Lackawanna did all of these things. Even though the company no longer exists, its greatness is still evident in the Tunkhannock Viaduct, (currently unused) “Lackawanna Cutoff,” and the simpler dignity of Convent Station.

This mentality probably cut into the Lackawanna’s profits, but it made the trains run better, and impressed the public.

The idea of a private company spending more money than necessary just to, essentially, show off is an alien idea today, but it has great utility.

Today’s U.S. passenger trains are run by public agencies, which get their funding from taxpayers and are thus caught up in the toxic debate over government spending.

Yet it’s apparent, from the hope-tinged-cynicism surrounding President Obama’s intermittent support for high-speed rail, that people think this is important. It’s hard not to look at the systems of countries like France, Japan, and China and not feel like the U.S. should catch up.

However, those systems were created by the same mentality that drove the leaders of the Lackawanna: a singular focus on building the best railroad, period.

It also demands a level of corporate citizenship that today’s ultra-capitalistic cabals utterly lack.

At the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway–the world’s first–there was a banner that read “Private Risk For Public Good.”

We’ve all heard the line that corporations are only responsible to their shareholders. Good thing no one told the builders of Convent Station.

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All work and no pay

“Millennials” have a lot to answer for.

We don’t buy cars, and we don’t buy houses. All we need to do is refrain from having 2.5 children, and we’ll have destroyed the American Dream.

Analysts often attribute my generation’s spending habits to some form of contrary thinking, but there’s a simpler explanation: we have no money.

A recent article in The New York Times highlights the problem of unpaid internships, which have replaced many entry-level jobs, leaving young people with no way to enter the working world.

Some college graduates spend the rest of their twenties in a cycle of internships, with no ability to advance to real jobs and, of course, no money to show for it.

Employers seem to think that they can run businesses without employees or, at least, without paying them.

In addition to replacing entry-level jobs with internships, they’ve turned increasingly to freelance or temp workers for jobs even the most desperate person won’t do for free.

Since these people aren’t technically employees, a company doesn’t have to offer them benefits, or pay its share of certain taxes–like Social Security–that are regularly deducted from employee paychecks.

Then there was the tantrum some companies threw when the Affordable Care Act mandated that they provide health insurance for all full-time employees. They delayed the employer mandate, then threatened to eliminate full-time positions just to get out of the requirement.

Unpaid internships, the cutting of full-time positions, and oppressively-low minimum wages may be good for business, but they’re not good for society.

People are quick to judge someone who borrows too much, or makes an extravagant purchase they really can’t afford. Maybe we should do the same with businesses.

A business that makes money while keeping its workers poor is operating on as false a pretense as a janitor who buys a new Mercedes.

The latter would be judged irresponsible, so why shouldn’t McDonalds’ be criticized for claiming massive profits while refusing to pay its employees a living wage?

That probably isn’t going to happen It’s always easier to blame the individual than the organization, especially when the organization is judged according to different standards.

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is in the news because of the comical list of companies that appear to be worth less than WhatsApp.

Nobody seems to have heard of WhatsApp, yet it’s worth more than some of the tech companies that produce the devices needed to use it, as well as Harley-Davidson, News Corp, and others.

Yet, like Facebook itself, WhatsApp doesn’t produce anything. It’s just an app.

It seems that actually making goods or providing services is bad for business, let alone taking care of employees.

And how can employees stand a chance when money is flowing to businesses that don’t even need to pay for factories or stores to operate?

Karl Marx said the only way for workers to secure their rights was to gain control of the means of production, but when nothing tangible is produced, what is there to take control of?

The economy is becoming increasingly ethereal; the rise of the Internet has made eliminating expenses the main priority of businesses, not being good at what they do, or playing a responsible role in society.

The fundamental purpose of a business is to make money, but when businesses make that their exclusive purpose, everybody loses.

The snide criticism of the “Millennial” lifestyle will probably turn to panic is this generation reaches middle age, and is still getting other people’s coffee.

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Canceling the snowpocalypse

Mailbox in Worcester, Massachusetts.What would Marshall Stacker Pentecost–Idris Elba’s oft-quoted character from Pacific Rim–say if he encountered not a giant monster from another dimension, but heavy snowfall?

New Englanders are supposed to dismiss each snowstorm as “just a dusting,” then go back to swigging Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and counting the minutes until opening day at Fenway.

That’s not the case though. With the snow piling on, many people are getting anxious, and the media would have you believe that the world is coming to an end. The Puritans wouldn’t be impressed.

Perhaps it has to do with the many ways we are now warned of impending precipitation.

Every time it snows, I get a weather alert on my phone, watch meteorologists discuss it with a perverse mix of dread and joy on television, and read about the aftermath in my local paper.

This might be a case of too much information. The constant bombardment of warnings may be making people more anxious than they were in the old days, when even school closings weren’t always properly broadcast.

Of course, one thing has changed in the intervening decades: the planet’s temperature.

Ask someone to trade in their car or washing machine for a more-efficient model, and all they’ll see is dollar signs. Ask them to look out their window in February, and all they’ll see is global warming.

This part of the country had a mild winter last year, which makes this one seem worse than it might actually be. Without crunching the numbers, I can say that past winters have left the landscape looking very much like it does now.

So while it’s good that people are starting to acknowledge global warming, it can also become another source of meteorological anxiety.

An easy remedy would be to just stop getting anxious about the weather. After all, things could be a lot worse. Remember the snowstorm that knocked out the region’s infrastructure in October 2011? Remember that there’s a place called Buffalo?

People may not be able to let go of it that easily, though. There may be a mass-execution of weathermen instead.

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