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Things related to cars

It’s hard to see the light in a dark (interior) car world

In 1909, Henry Ford described his philosophy on offering customers different car colors:

Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.

While paint is no longer only available in black, it seems that car interiors are—or at least, they might as well be. And to me, that's a shame—I really dislike dark interiors. (They get overly hot in the sun, they show every single scuff, and they hide some lovely design details. They can also make interiors feel much smaller than they are.)

You'd never know this is a problem, though, when you start looking at cars on manufacturers' web sites. Visit most any car maker's web site, and for most any car you're interested in, you'll see a mix of available interior colors—black, grey, tan, brown, red, etc.

Using the ubiquitous configuration tools on such sites, you can mix and match your exterior and interior colors to get what you want. (Not all interior colors will be available with all exteriors.) For me, of course, I build with light interiors.

But if you want to actually buy the car you've designed, and you like light interiors, you'll find you'll probably have to custom order your vehicle. Why? Because dealers (at least in the USA) don't stock the light colors.


Do-it-yourself RAV4 cargo area covers

Note: This post will only (possibly) be of interest to buyers of the 2016 RAV4; if you're not one of what I assume is a handful of people (at most), move along—there's really nothing to see here! Posting mainly so I remember what I did.

We recently bought a 2016 RAV4, and (so far) love it. However, there's one thing that bothered us: the front of the rear cargo area is visible to anyone who glances in. Toyota sells a cover for the cargo area, but unlike those for past RAV4s, it doesn't attach to the rear setbacks, leaving the front area uncovered. This means that a good sized chunk of the cargo area is still visible, even with the cargo cover in place.

I didn't want to wait for Toyota to release something, so I set out to MacGyver a solution. I had a few requirements for my homemade fix:

  • Absolutely no added rattles/noise
  • Very light
  • Very cheap
  • No bright reflections in back window
  • Move when the seats' recline angle changes
  • Easily installed/removed

I had a lot of different thoughts, but wound up using foam core covered by felt, attached with some flat black nylon string. Note: These covers require the cargo cover, as they use its crossbar for support.

They may not be the loveliest things in the world, but they work perfectly and meet every one of my original objectives.

If you'd like to create your own covers, here's how I made ours…


The (lack of) economics in most hybrid SUVs

Recently, we were in the market for a new car, well, not car but SUV. My wife really likes small to mid-size all wheel drive SUVs, so we started looking for one to replace the car she's been driving.

But she also prefers hybrids, both for the environmental and economic benefits (using less gas, spending less money) and for the "not having to wait in Oregon's ever-present gas lines" (because we're too stupid to pump our own gas) benefit. Having now done lots of research, I have to say that looking for a SUV that's also a hybrid greatly reduces the choices available.

The environmental question This analysis completely ignores the environmental side of hybrids: Using less gas means emitting less pollutants, which is good for the environment. However, producing batteries can be a dirty business, and batteries consume rare metals. So are they an environmental net loss or gain?

On the question of plug-in hybrids, which recharge from the power grid, it gets even messier: How is the electricity used to recharge created? In the northwest, much of the power comes from hydro and wind, which are cleaner than the coal used in other areas of the country.

In short, I've completely ignored the environmental issue here because it's very complicated. If someone's aware of a good "green impact" metric that works across hybrids, please let me know.

After doing a lot of reading and searching, and not really worrying about budget just yet, we only found a handful of options (excluding some super-high-end vehicles):

There's also the BMW X5 xDrive40e, but (a) it's not out yet, (b) it's a plug-in hybrid not a straight hybrid, and (c) it's going to be really wacko expensive when it comes out. So I'm ignoring that one, too.

What I found as I started to analyze the various hybrid SUVs is that—with one amazing exception—they don't make any economic sense even for the most long-distance of drivers.


Stupid by design: Voice command uselessness

I drive a 2014 Subaru Legacy; for the most part, I'm happy with the car. But there are some design features that are just comically stupid. Here's one example…

The image at right shows the steering wheel controls on the left side of my steering wheel. The up/down arrows icon is a toggle switch to quickly change the audio track being played (or the radio station preset); it works great, and I use it all the time.

The stupid comes in just below that, with the face/speaking icon button. This button activates voice command mode, which does many useful things, such as dialing the phone, setting a destination for the nav system, etc. But you can also—you guessed it—use it to change tracks. Here's how that works:

  1. Press face/speaking icon.
  2. Wait about one second for the car to say "voice command please."
  3. Say "next track" or "previous track."
  4. Listen to car say "track up" (or "track down"), then the track changes.

Now I ask…who is ever going to use this method of changing tracks? The very first thing you do to use it—pressing the face/speaking icon—requires touching the steering wheel. The same wheel where, roughly an inch above that button, is a toggle switch that will switch tracks in precisely one step!

Did they include the voice command track changing features because someone in Marketing said they had to? Did they think there are people who prefer a slower, more cumbersome process to simply tapping a toggle switch? Did they think there are people who need audible feedback about what they've asked the car to do? (Never mind that they get that feedback by hearing the new track after using the toggle button.) Do they think there are a group of people who will use steering wheel buttons but would never use steering wheel toggle switches?

I honestly have no idea why they included the voice command ability to change tracks, but it definitely strikes me as stupid by design…or am I overlooking some really-obvious use that I'm just not seeing?

Ford delivers (via FedEx) excellent customer service

About a year ago, we were in the market for a new car. We wanted a roomy midsize car with good gas mileage, and lots of tech toys for me to play with. After much searching around, and too many test drives to count, we chose a new Ford Fusion Hybrid.

We don't drive so much that a hybrid makes economic sense, but I so despise Oregon's "can't pump your own gas" law that we went for the Fusion Hybrid's 47/47mpg rating (at the time we bought), and its expected 600ish mile range between fill-ups.

Our experience with the car has been nothing short of terrific—given I hadn't bought an American car in over 30 years, I've been very pleasantly surprised by the car's comfort, quietness, reliability and features. (More on our experiences with the car itself in a future post.)

Overall, our gas mileage has been great—we're usually around 40mpg in the city, and often over 47mpg on the highway. Our experience versus the EPA sticker didn't surprise us, as we've previously owned a hybrid (a Camry), and saw similar results. I also don't think I've ever hit the EPA numbers for any of my prior vehicles, hybrid or not. So while we weren't seeing 47/47, we weren't far off, and were quite happy with our mileage.

Which made the FedEx we received yesterday all that more surprising…


Amazingly fast garage door opener

I posted this to Twitter a year or so ago…

Unfortunately, just after I posted it, Google decided that YouTube accounts also had to have Google Plus accounts, so I closed my YouTube account. So here's the video of those fast garage doors at our local Toyota shop.

These doors are tall, yet roll up in under a second; they come down nearly as quickly, too. The end result is that the service bay entrance area isn't exposed to the elements for any length of time at all.

These are a few of my favorite roads…

Last summer, we took our two girls on a 30-day, 4,000-mile trek around the western United States (here's the full route). The trip was made possible by my wife's employer, where everyone is given a multi-week sabattical after 10 years of service.

Our kids are relatively young for such a journey--just four and seven at the time of the trip. To make it bearable for them (and us!), we drove relatively short distances each day, and spent a mostly-driving-free week in Colorado in the middle of the trip. (More on the lessons we learned traveling for 30 days straight with two young kids in a future blog post...)

What was great about the trip, for the adults in the car at least, was that relatively little time was spent on interstate highways--only 1,200 of the 4,000 miles, and of those 1,200 miles, 900 of them were on the first three days and the last day of the trip. So most of the time, we were on state highways or even smaller backroads. These are the roads where you can really see the country, and get away from the crowds--many times we had the road completely to ourselves.

Given how much we enjoyed these roads, I thought I'd take a few minutes and share some of my favorites from the journey. (Click the small map image for the full Google Maps view (in a new window) of each road.)

Customer (or non-customer!) service done right

The other evening, our Toyota Camry came home with a leaking back right tire--it was leaking so badly that my wife could hear it when she went to get our eldest out of her car seat. A quick visual inspection found the culprit; I could just see the flat head of what looked to be a steel construction staple embedded in the tread, and hear the air rushing out around the staple.

After figuring out how to get the spare and tools out of the trunk of the Camry--by far, the most convoluted such system I've run into; I'm glad I was working on it in the garage and not in a driving rainstorm at night by the side of the road--I put on the mini-donut spare and tossed the now nearly-flat full-sized tire in the trunk and called it an evening.

The next day, I was trying to figure out where to take the tire to have it repaired, when I remembered something from many years back: America's Tire (called Discount Tire in some areas of the country) had once repaired a flat for me for free--but that was nearly 15 years ago in another state. I remembered them telling me (at the time) that it was standard company policy to patch tires for free, even if you've never bought anything from the company. So my first thought was to return to America's Tire--but surely, such a generous policy couldn't have survived the cost-cutting and bottom-line-focus that's afflicted seemingly every company over the last 15 years, could it?

After driving a few miles to the local America's Tire outlet, I was thrilled to find that yes, in fact, their generous 'free tire repair' program was still in place. About the only requirement is that you provide your name and address, and some information about your car. They'll then repair the tire (if it's repairable; holes on the shoulder areas of tires are not repairable), mount it back on your car, and put the spare back in the trunk--all for free. What's really amazing about this is that the employees don't treat this free service as a hassle--they were professional and treated me very well, and at no time did I feel like they were upset that I was taking up their time with a free service. From the time I entered the store until I left about 20 minutes later, I was treated just like the customers there who were dropping $600+ on new tires.

To find such service in today's cost-reduction-era is rare enough. To find it delivered with excellent customer service and in a courteous manner is simply amazing. Granted, I've only taken advantage of this service twice in 15 years. But both times, I've had a great experience, and I think that's worth sharing. So if you find yourself with a flat tire, you might want to visit a local America's Tire (Discount Tire) at which to have it repaired. (I also use them when I need tires for our vehicles, but there is absolutely no requirement that you be a customer in order to have a tire repaired for free.)

So thanks, America's Tire, for bucking the cost-cutting trend, and for providing a free service in a courteous and professional manner.

Ten things to do in the next twenty years

Over the weekend, I was thinking a bit about the next 20 years, and things I'd like to accomplish within that timeframe. Nothing practical like "preparing for retirement" or "funding the girls' college accounts" or even "remembering to mow the lawn weekly." No, it's always more interesting to think of the fun things one might be able to do in the future.

So here's my list, focused on those things I think would be the most fun or most interesting. As with lists of this type, there's a good chance that well over half my list will remain unaccomplished--family, work responsibilities, and economic realities always seem to get in the way of our dreams. However, I will do my best to check off at least some of these items while working within the confines of reality.

The dealer does the right thing

Here's the promised update to the bad auto service call. I took the car back to the dealer last Friday to look at. I was glad I happened to have taken a picture of the passenger seat after purchasing the car--I printed that, as well as new pictures I took of the damaged area, and took printouts with me. The hole in the seat wasn't even an issue; he saw clearly that it was new based on the photos, and they gave me no grief. On the stain, he asked me how I knew it was from the service, as it could have happened any time. I then ran my finger through it, and showed him the still-moist residue that came up with it. That was the end of that; they agreed to repair the seat for no charge.

Repairing perforated leather is far from simple, from what I understand. Our dealer outsources such repairs to a company that comes in once a week, so the car went back to the dealer this morning. When I picked the car up this afternoon, I was duly impressed--although I can see where the repair was made, it really takes a big photograph to make it obvious. From any distance at all, it looks completely normal. Compare the images below; the one on the left is the damaged post-service shot; the one on the right was taken tonight, about 20 minutes ago.

after-small  after-big

Certainly at that size, the repair is invisible. Click the image on the right, though (caution - huge image!), and you can see the fix. It's not nearly that obvious in reality; the flash and close up really bring it out. I was amazed they were able to repair it that well--especially given the age of the leather seats. They also cleaned it up quite nicely. If I look very closely, I can see just a small bit of remaining discoloration, but nothing like what was there before, and there's no more residue when I run my finger across the area.

So thank you, Beaverton Toyota, for doing the right thing, and doing it well. The fact that they have a to/from free shuttle service made taking the car back about as painless as possible, too. Fun fact: the shuttles (Toyota Sienna minivans) serve a 10-mile radius, and they have two of them. Through September, they've racked up a total of 65,000 miles doing nothing but short local-hop round trips!

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