The new Toyota Prius

I had the joy of driving a new model Prius recently. I’ve been using a Civic Hybrid (as a short term rental) for a bit, and was very impressed, especially compared to the old Prius. I’d driven the old Prius in Australia, and it was a nice enough car with good fuel economy, but my overwhelming impression of it was that it lacked power. It lacked power to a huge degree. Entering traffic in it was risky, requiring a really good break in traffic.

The first Prius was the first hybrid I drove. When I drove the Civic I was so impressed by the improvement in performance. In fact you can read about that in another of my posts here. The new Prius on the other hand is a different kettle of fish (barrel of monkeys or other suitable cliche of your choice). It still feels the same in terms of it’s style and handling, but they’ve fixed the performance problem. You no longer feel fear approaching intersections or darting out into traffic, and it’s got the guts when you need it for overtaking acceleration. It can still be driven very frugally and even in full electric mode, though I didn’t try that out when I had it. Presumably once the battery is too low it forces you into a hybrid drive to increase range.

All in all Toyota stepped up to the plate with this one. The first car wasn’t bad, but certainly didn’t have what was needed to appeal to anyone but those trying to save the planet or drop their fuel bill. The new one comes across as a realistic proposition for any new car buyer looking at small cars. Be sure to keep in mind the Civic hybrid though if you are looking for a good alternative.


St. Louis Easter Sunday Classic Cars and Hot-Rods

A couple of days earlier, I had no idea it was on, but after learning of the St. Louis Easter Sunday Classic Car Show it became a must-see. I was particularly interested because I expected to see a lot more American cars at this than I’d normally see at shows in Australia and New Zealand. I was right.

The thing I hadn’t counted on was the sheer number and quality of cars that would be on display, nor how many people would be there walking around given how few people we usually see when out in St. Louis. The second bonus was that there was also a hot-rod show organised for an adjacent car park at the same time.

Aside from getting a bit too much sun, I ended up with a camera full of photos, a few of the more interesting of which I’ve put below.

A one-of-a-kind electric car from 1920. The sole survivor of a run of 174!

A one-of-a-kind electric car from 1920. The sole survivor of a run of 174!

An early 80's 320i. Immaculate as the day it was new!

An early 80’s 320i. Immaculate as the day it was new!

An exquisite Thunderbird

An exquisite Thunderbird

From the very little...

From the very little… the large!

…to the large!

A row of Model T’s.

Always a favourite

Always a favorite

Wanaka classic cars

At the end of 2011, my wife and I found ourselves holidaying around the lakes region in the South Island of New Zealand. Just outside of the lakeside town of Wanaka there are a couple of car collections open to the public (for a small fee, whose values elude me at the moment). To get to them head out of Wanaka towards the airport, and you’ll find them both within half a kilometre or so (about a quarter mile for those playing imperially).

The first of these that we went to is a part of a larger collection of toys and games, though in itself it is by no means small, at the Wanaka Transport and Toy Museum. There are a few quite rare cars dotted in amongst this collection, though at time of visiting the collection was poorly laid out, with cars essentially warehoused in a hangar and a barn, with little to no information about any of the cars in the collection. There’s also a selection of older agricultural equipment to check out while you’re there.

Warbirds and Wheels

A wide shot of the Warbirds and Wheels hangar showing the collection of classic cars and the top of a plane to the left.

The second we visited, Warbirds and Wheels, has a New Zealand take on an American style diner attached, and we can attest that the milkshakes, though maybe not super-authentic, were great to quench thirst on a hot summer day. The collection here is vastly smaller, but of substantially higher quality cars and presentation, dotted with a number of Packards and other American cars from pre-1940. The museum also features warbirds sitting in the second half of the spacious hangar housing the collections.

Both museums/collections are worth a visit if you have plenty of time, but if you find yourself a bit pressed and want to appreciate some exquisite machinery, Warbirds and Wheels is the place to visit. Being substantially smaller gives you that bit more time to look at the (well-presented) cars up close.

Me, myself and I

This is the (obligatory?) bio post about me, and why I started this blog.

I was born in Sydney, Australia, almost 29 years ago at time of writing. My father is an engineer and had been studying towards his masters at UNSW at the time. My parents are New Zealanders originally, but we moved to England for four years when I was two years old for my fathers work. Following this we moved back to New Zealand when my father went into business with a fellow Kiwi whom he worked with in England. I spent the next 16 years growing up in Christchurch, completing high school and obtaining a Bachelor of Science with first class honours in 2005.

In 2006 I moved out of home for the first time, as I returned to Australia to study toward my Ph.D. in Chemistry at the Australian National University in Canberra, and have never moved back! During my Ph.D. I met the wonderful woman who would later become my wife, after completing the Ph.D. and graduating in 2011. While finalising the Ph.D. I was working as a Postdoctoral researcher for two years in Perth, which was enough to make me want to stop doing science for the rest of my life. During this time I started to realise that I had no real passion for science, I had just been good at it through school, which isn’t really enough if you’re going to go through the many hard years to become and independent research group leader. I could go on about this at length, but the fundamental realisation was that I care about cars, motorbikes, and bicycles.

You might think that this is an obvious conclusion when the part of the day you look forward to the most is the commute to and from work, but it took me some time to figure that out! My wife and I moved to America about nine months ago to continue her research career, and I’ve been looking for scientific and non-scientific work to no avail, leading to the natural progression of starting to write about what I care about; any and all things automotive!

On this blog I intend to write about things that I come across, observations on vehicles I get to drive, and maybe occasionally write ups on new cars or car technologies that I find particularly interesting; pretty much anything that I can relate back to cars or driving really. I hope that someone out there might get something from it!


Wedding cars

My wife and I married in Canberra, and the only thing that I really wanted as a part of our wedding was to have a classic car. We found a company called A1 Classic Car Rentals, who offer a range of classic cars and drivers for special occasions. We had a small wedding party of six people, and a limited budget, so were able to be accommodated in one car.

For the event we hired the flagship of their fleet, a 1934 Packard Limousine. The car was simply beautiful and is the pride and joy of the owner/driver Tim. His father had owned the car before him and restored it to an impeccable standard. I think it’s the smoothest ride I’ve ever had when we were cruising Canberra streets for the photos in the afternoon. So gentle that we could’ve fallen asleep in the back from all the excitement and stress that the big day brings!

The car, to my wife’s initial frustration but later acceptance, ended up starring in a number of our photos. Incidentally the photographer we used had hired the car herself for her high school formal! Though in such a small city coincidences like that occur fairly regularly!

1934 Packard

1934 Packard Limousine from A1 Classic Car Rentals in Canberra, Australia

Learning to drive, all over again.

My wife and I moved to America from Australia in the middle of 2012. This came with a whole host of differences, but chief among them for a lover of driving like myself was the opportunity to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road. For a while I can use my Australian licence to drive here, but soon am going to need to get my Missouri licence. Sadly it’s not a direct conversion, and I’ve discovered I’ll have to take a practical test, which for no apparent reason has brought back those fears of screwing up a parallel park in the test, that were last experienced over a decade ago!
To quell those fears, and because we don’t yet own a car in America (you need the licence first…), I decided to hire the services of a driving instructor. He decribed to me what to expect in the test, and then we pretty much just cruised the streets of St. Louis to give me some exposure to driving on the right side, sitting on the left.
I decided to write this article to help others making the transition from one side of the line to the other. The differences really aren’t that great, with the biggest learning curve being where to look for traffic. Initially I found myself checking toward the wrong side of the car for the rear-view mirror. Fortunately well set up wing mirrors can save you from that little trap, and after a while I’ve retrained that muscle memory and only look at the A-pillar one in every ten or so mirror checks.
The other big difference was where the cars were coming from, which was even important when travelling on foot. After a couple of close shaves I started taking my time crossing the street. Even after looking in the right place for cars, I’d still be prone to look at the wrong side of the car itself. That’s important, as that subconcious eye-contact with the driver that lets you see what they’re about to do can be completely misread when you look at either a) a passenger who’s not necessarily paying attention to what the driver’s doing, or where they’re going, or b) seeing an empty seat where your brain expects there to be a driver. Quite disconcerting to say the least, but once you relearn the experiences of your entire life it’s not so bad!
The only other traps for converts are the obvious: trying to get into the wrong side of the car to drive it (guaranteed to get a laugh out of any locals if you’re not quick to correct and they realise what you’re about to do), and the occasional whacking of the door card as you go to put on the park break, or change gear. It’s funny just how trained into your routine you can get for cutting the ignition and parking the car, and you wont realise it until you’re forced to do things differently.
Hopefully some fore-knowledge of what to expect might help someone out there faced with the same situation, who’s maybe a little nervous about it. There’s really nothing to fear though, driving is still driving, and the biggest challenge is still the unpredictable idiot, of which there always appears to be plenty. And heck, even if you do end up proceeding up the wrong side of the street, which I’ll admit to having done only once (fortunately only on a pushbike too), people will likely just assume you’re one of those unpredictable idiots that doesn’t deserve a licence.
Now to go take that licence test…

A car comparison, sort of

I’ve been in the (fortunate?) position to have to rent several cars in recent months, and have managed to derive a few opinions on what’s currently available. Even though not all the cars are the same class, most are, and I’ll focus on them with a couple of comments on the alternative I had one day.
I’ve had to rent cars, as having recently moved to St. Louis from Australia, my wife and I have not yet got a car, and this city requires one if, like us, you want to get out and about a bit, and see some of the things the city has to offer. We’ve resorted to two types of renting; the standard rental company pay-per-day hire, and through my wifes work we have been able to get free membership to one of the shared car pay-per-hour rental systems.
The first thing I’d like to say is that the car share style of system, which is yet to really catch on in Australia, is absolutely brilliant. Well it’s brilliant in a situation like ours where you have just moved to a city, don’t yet own a car (or even long term don’t plan on buying one), but could still use one for things like making a trip to the supermarket or department stores to pick up bulky things that would otherwise be difficult to get. The one we’ve joined costs us $5 an hour, which includes gas, though if the fuel drops below 1/4 tank during your rental then you’re expected to fill it up in your rental period. Because the cars this company uses are hybrids, they don’t consume that much gas. So far out of about ten two hour rentals I’ve had to fill it once, which was a straightforward operation using the fuel card that lives in the glove box.
Anyway, I digress. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of using a Honda Civic Hybrid from the above company, a Toyota Corolla, a Chevrolet Aveo, and a Nissan Rogue (called a Murano in the Australian market). I’ll deal to the Rogue first as it’s the odd one out. Overall not a bad car, though it has relatively poor visibility, especially for something where you’re sitting nice and high. Large pillars make the rear-view feel quite small. The major problem though was with the drivetrain. It was an automatic CVT attached to a 3.0L  V6. The car simply felt heavy and slow no matter what you did with it. It was fine just cruising on the Interstate, but for a car primarily part of the Soccer-Mom collection, where stop-start traffic driving is more likely the norm and long range cruising the exception, it made the car relatively uneconomical, and not that much fun to drive, aside from the laughter every time it would rev its head off and go nowhere fast.
The other three are more or less the same group; small car sedans. The runner up in this comparison was the Corolla. I’ve driven pretty much every Corolla generation built at one point or another, and the first car I owned was a little ’93 Corolla hatch. I know there’s nothing particularly exciting about them and expected as much, true to form it delivered. As a base model rental Corolla fitted with an automatic gearbox I found it lacked any sense of urgency. Ever. But it was an economical unoffensive car. It was easy to park. And once you’ve said that about a car as a positive, then you’re running pretty low on the praise, but aside from the lack of vigor there’s really nothing wrong with it. I think a manual box would seriously help the car though.
Third place was the Chevrolet Aveo. Essentially I found this car to be much like the Corolla, but worse in every way except one. It felt a bit more peppy for the around town driving we were doing, and didn’t struggle so much getting up to speed. But it was still a worse car. The entire build of the car felt cheaper. Amazingly Chevrolet have managed to make a small car with powersteering feel heavy too. The only thing I’ve driven that had similar steering weight was a non-power assisted original Mini. Somehow the car managed to feel as heavy as an E39 BMW 5-series when driving it, despite it being smaller. Finally it didn’t score well in fuel economy either. We did the lowest mileage in this car, yet somehow used the most fuel. It really was the small car that felt like a medium to large. One combo you don’t want to buy.
That leaves me with the best of the three, a Civic Hybrid. The only gripe I have with it is the digital tachometer. Presonally I still like an analogue dial, as it’s easier to read quickly. Aside from that everything about the car actually feels pretty decent. It’s no racecar, but it’s got plenty of up-and-go when you need it for city driving thanks to the electric assisted engine, but it can also be driven in a miserly manner with ease. It even encourages energy efficient driving by giving you a score each time you switch it off, and hey, as a guy that like winning games but has a bit of a lead foot it still had me wanting to try and get a high score. The possibility to change driving behaviour is actually a lot higher than I gave this system credit when I first learned of Honda including it. I feel I should disclose here that I’ve driven Toyota Prius’ in the past and the Civic was a much better real-world performer. Where the Prius felt constantly limited by it’s hybrid nature, the civic doesn’t.