Thursday, December 22, 2011

Canadian car thieves armed with dangerously bad taste

Last week, when the Insurance Bureau of Canada released its list of the top ten stolen vehicles in Canada for 2010, one thing was clear – Canadian car thieves plied their ruinous trade armed with dangerously bad taste and a clear disdain for the environment.

Take the car at the top of the list – the 2009 Toyota Venza. At first glance, its main appeal would be the freakishly oversize 19” wheels. This is not a pretty car. It is not a sexy car. It is just plain fugly. But according to an anonymous automotive locksmith, in its first year of production, the security system had a loophole. And so anyone can break into it in only 24 seconds. Another reason not to buy a car in its first production year.

Moving down to #2 and #3, we have the more predictable 1999 and 2000 Honda Civic SiR. Not only are these popular with the young tuner crowd, but they can apparently be broken into with a simple butter knife.

Next, #4, #5, #6 and #7 – the 06 Ford 350 pickup 4WD, 02 Cadillac Escalade EXT 4-door AWD , 06 Chevy Trailblazer SS 4-door 4WD, and the 07 Ford 350 pickup 4WD. It’s unlikely any of these will haul anything grittier than Gucci luggage. They will, however, spend a lot of time at the gas station, where the cashier may or may not be impressed. That’s about the best reason for having one. Those poor cashiers get bored.

But it’s #8 on this list that is truly mystifying – the 2001 Pontiac Aztek. Although it can fold out into a handy dandy tent, the hideous Aztek (nicknamed Asstek) demonstrates that Detroit does ugly like no one else. I even emailed an Aztek owners’ association to ask them what they thought of this dubious achievement, and no one got back to me. Perhaps they were all out celebrating? Or thinking of ways to entice car thieves, like leaving the engine running and a six-pack of brewsky on the front seat.

Finally, #9 and #10, the dependable 98 and 99 Acura Integra.These cars are hot in many ways, unfortunately. And the butter knife that breaks into a Civic SiR? It will apparently break into these as well.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

All I want for Chrismakah

If you look closely at the photo on the left, you’ll see it’s a Christmas tree – but decorated with photos of a young Barbra Streisand. The handiwork of Rhonda Lieberman, a “Barbra Bush” may just be the perfect way to celebrate Chrismakah . (That’s Christmas and Hanukah for those who may be wondering.)

Naturally, there are a few things on my Chrismakah list that are a little futuristic and perhaps downright fantastical. For example: I’d like a car where every surface is heated. Not just heated seats and a heated steering wheel, but a heated dashboard, floormat, gearshift, etc. I don’t want to touch anything cold. Ever.

This would extend to the outside. If all the body panels were heated, why, the snow would just mellllt away.

While we’re at it, how about the car colour changing at the touch of a button? That’s because sometimes, I’d like to have a pink car. That’s when I ‘m parking in a dubious neighbourhood. Nobody steals pink cars, right?Then it could switch back to silver when I’m ready to leave.

And wouldn’t it be great if my car shrank so it could fit into really tiny parking spaces? That way I wouldn’t have to bash the cars around me like this idiot.

Then there’s the question of fuel. You can go ahead and run your car on hydrogen or electricity, but me, I’d like my car to run on my favourite beverage – like hot chocolate or green tea. I know I’d never run out!

How about some additional lanes on the roadways? Not just for bicycles, but for those drivers who simply must attend to their text messages. That’s because all cars would be equipped with motion detecting software that lights up a big LED rooftop sign “CAUTION DRIVER TEXTING” as soon as they reach for their Crackberry.

Finally, I’d like my car to turn into a streetcar like the King 504. That way, I really could use transit as much as I want to. And … I’d be on time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Walk this way

Before anyone learns to drive or even ride a bicycle, first – they walk. And for many of us, that’s still our primary mode of transportation. Especially if you live in an urban area.

Frankly, I love walking. It’s a healthy and social way of getting around. And often much more efficient than waiting for the streetcar. During the week, I almost always walk or take transit. Driving is reserved for weekends, for shopping, schlepping or visiting far-flung family and friends.

And so I’ve always found it ironic that in Ontario, pedestrian rights are lovingly detailed in our Highway Traffic Act, which includes a definition for a “pedestrian crossover” but not the term “pedestrian.”

It is encouraging that the official MTO (Ministry of Transportation Ontario) driver’s handbook for student drivers includes a couple of pages about sharing the road with pedestrians. There’s even a diagram of pedestrians of all shapes, sizes and abilities using a crosswalk – complete with cars neatly stopped at the white lines. If only real life reflected the MTO driver’s handbook!

Despite the fact that the word pedestrian is defined by as “lacking in vitality, imagination, distinction, etc.”, walking is making a great comeback. There are sites like that will rank your neighbourhood’s walkability, or walking access to main streets or public spaces, parks, flourishing business, public transit, affordable housing and more. In the U.S., one point of Walk Score is worth up to $3,000 towards the value of your home!

One of the most vociferous advocates of walking is spacing magazine, which in 2005 dedicated an entire issue to the joys of pedestrianism. The cover declared “Everyone is a pedestrian – it took us millions of years to learn how to walk and only 100 to forget.”

Yet, walking has never gone out of fashion for some of us – observant jews have always lived close to their synagogue, so they could walk to Shabbat services. Anything else was strictly forbidden. In pockets of Toronto and elsewhere around the world, observant jews still live close to their synagogue for the same reason – and they don’t drive or take public transit on Shabbat.

You could say, it’s in their religion to walk. Not a bad example.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stop, thief!

Just as cars seem to be getting smarter than we are, along comes a software developer to show them who’s boss. With a few jabs and thrusts to the keyboard, voila! By hacking into Suri voice recognition software, this guy can start and stop his car – and pop the trunk and hood.

Could computer nerds be the next unstoppable generation of car thieves? Nowadays there are more computers in one car than there are in the basement of the average 15-year old boy. Once, all these kids wanted to do was get their driver’s licence. Now it seems computers and smartphones are the rite of passage de jour.

The old-school car thief used a slim jim and maybe knew to hot-wire a car. Now they can use a smartphone or an iPad. The more computer chips there are in your car, the easier it will be to hack into. Which will make car thieves even more brazen and powerful than they already are. Could a computer hacker in, say, Japan, one day be able to steal a car in Canada? It’s a possible, scary scenario.

At one time, drivers just wanted a car that was good on fuel and easy on the environment. But cars are so loaded down with personalized audio and GPS systems and all other kinds of toys, you gotta wonder.

Recently the local constabulary kicked off the holiday season’s “Lock it or Lose it” campaign at Yorkdale mall, one of the larger temples of conspicuous consumption in the GTA. That is to say, if you don’t lock your car, you lose it … and/or whatever’s inside it. Locking a car almost seems feeble and futile in this computer hacker age, but it's all we've got.

Would we be further ahead if we just “lost” some of the electronic goodies? Maybe these dubious devices should go the way of the 8-track. You’ve got to wonder if that’s also hiking up the sticker price and weighing down the car.

Now, that’s an idea worth stealing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The little east German car that could ...

In some ways, the car in this photo has been frozen in time. The proud Trabant was once one of the few means of personal vehicular transportation available to the proletariat in Eastern Europe under Communism. Imagine, spending years on a waiting list for a car, handing over your hard-earned deutschmarks, rubles or zloty – and this is what you get. A two-stroke, smoke spewing, whiny and rattling Trabant. And the very definition of what the French call “jolie laid”, or “pretty ugly.”

When someone starts to weiner on about German engineered cars, I like to bring up the Trabant. Those resourceful east German engineers were probably given a bucket of potatoes and told to design a car. And they managed to hook up a lawnmower engine to a lightweight body that could schlepp four adults around the Eastern Bloc. Never mind the capricious powertrain, the noxious exhaust and Duroplast body – essentially, a paper compound. Over 3 million of these were sold from 1957 to 1991.

And to those exotic car aficionados who like to brag about their car being hand-made, I like to point out that the Trabant was also lovingly made by hand. All it took was a mullet and a mallet to get the job done.

In the 90s, the collapse of the Berlin wall and the closing of the Trabant factory made more than a few people nostalgic for the little bug-eyed denizen of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), with folks bragging about how Mรคnner aus Stal fahren Autos aus Pappe (men made of steel drive cars made of paper).

But the Trabant is having the last laugh. The polluting punchline of the East German auto industry made its debut at the 2009 Frankfurt auto show as – an electric vehicle. Since then, the automakers have been looking for investors so the electric Trabant can hit the showrooms in 2012. I would guestimate their main drawback has been the price – almost $30,000 for a Trabant?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to tell if your car is Canadian

You could be forgiven for thinking the snow-entombed car in this photo might be Canadian. In fact, this photo was actually taken in Washington, D.C. by “Woodley Wonderworks”, where a car buried in a few inches of snow is a big novelty that must be digitally documented. Which is how you know that this car really isn’t Canadian. We see this all the time and it’s boo-ring.

But here are some tell-tale signs that your car is truly, madly and deeply Canadian:

  • Your car is sporting winter tires but only because you waited until it actually snowed, dashing your hopes that Toronto might finally, magically turn into Jamaica.
  • Your car is not a convertible.
  • Your car is not a motorcyle.
  • There is a ripped-up, stanky old “Go Leafs Go” t-shirt lying on the floor that’s used to clean your tires.
  • The coin drawer is jammed full of Canadian Tire money. There are no coins in it. We do not have coin-operated road tolls.
  • In the glove compartment, there is bug spray, serviettes, and a pack of Smarties.
  • There is a warm plaid blanket on your back seat, even in August.
  • You carry a snow brush and ice scraper in your trunk year round.
  • There are heated mirrors … inside.
  • At least one of your radio presets is a traffic station.
  • At least one empty Tim Horton’s coffee cup lurks somewhere. It’s next to the Robertson screwdriver.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Best car colour? Stealth!

Cop cars are best not seen or heard, but the Stealth models like this one totally rock, as long as they're not in the rear view mirror with the cherry a-flashing. That dark blue ghost finish over the gaudy decals is genius. They know they're not foolin' anyone - as if a Crown Vicky with a massive cow catcher is, like, a regular car.

At least the cops have some imagination. It seems the most happening car colour these days is white, which makes the most exotic ride look like a stupid bathroom fixture. And in Canada, a white car just blends in with winter blizzards. Does anyone really want to be that invisible on the road?

Perhaps it's that lighter coloured cars are supposedly good for fuel economy. Scientists at the University of Berkeley claim a lighter coloured car will have 1.1% improved fuel efficiency over a black car, along with reduced emissions. That's a sound, scientific reason for choosing a car colour.

Especially as opposed to superstitious bunk like green being an unlucky colour for a car. Although anyone who's had a British Racing Green Triumph with the Lucas Prince of Darkness electrical system will probably agree with you. But so far, being "green" hasn't jinxed the Prius or other eco friendly rides - the Japanese tsunami that put most Japanese cars and car parts in limbo for months doesn't count.

Another myth that just won't die is that red cars cost more to insure and are targeted by the gendarmes. Nonsense. Check out any online insurance application and see if that question pops up. As for the police, they don't care what colour car you're driving over the speed limit or otherwise breaking the law.

The late, great Jan Zurakowski, World War II flying ace and test pilot of the Avro Arrow, didn't really care much for cars. But he quite liked his blue and white 1987 Subaru Legacy wagon because the two-tone colour made it easy to find in a parking lot.

Thankfully, blue and red are the colours of choice for cars in the good old Czech republic, the nation that spawned Bohemian crystal and good taste. Hopefully, they're on to something.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

When is a cigarette like a cellphone?

When is a cigarette like a cellphone?

They’re both addictive, go well with coffee and absolutely do not belong behind the wheel of your car. Yes, distracted driving has been around ever since someone lit up a cigarette behind the wheel of a Model T. But it took until May 2007 for someone (in Italy, of all places) to recognize the risk of smoking and driving.

In Ontario and many other jurisdictions, it's illegal to use a cellphone while driving (unless you're the mayor of Toronto). Ontario also has all kinds of laws about where you can't smoke, but it's only illegal to smoke in your car if there's a child.

In fact, there are a trunkful of seemingly innocent activities that can seduce your focus away from the road. Here’s a sample, compiled by the Canadian Automobile Association.

  • Something unexpected alongside the roadway
  • An unexpected noise
  • Operating the radio
  • Adjusting the temperature
  • Using in-car devices like GPS
  • Eating, drinking and smoking
  • Grooming
  • Talking to passengers
  • Tending to children
  • Reading or writing

Recently, the Insurance Bureau of Canada claimed that talking on the cellphone while driving impairs your driving ability as much as someone with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent!

Finally, the good folks at Lifespan did a study that showed ignoring a full bladder can impair your cognitive functions to the same extent as too much alcohol or sleep deprivation, and therefore affect your driving.

That’s why gas stations have washrooms. Pull over, please!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Getting a charge from EV Fest

I always knew my 73 Dodge Dart Swinger would be reincarnated, but this was the last place I expected to meet up with my former ride. Even though I bought it fifth-hand in 1983, the honey-coloured Swinger served me well for eight years. That unstoppable slant-six heart was beating strong, but the car's frame was rusted out. My father sold it to a young kid who was plundering it for parts. It's always hard to say good-bye to cars I've loved, and so I comforted myself with the notion that someday, we would meet again.

And here I was, at the EV Fest at Toronto's Evergreen Brickworks when I spotted my old sweet set of wheels. The Swinger's insides had been gutted, reworked, restored and converted into an electric vehicle. I suppose I shouldn't have been that surprised. After all, the Swinger was just a Valiant with bellbottoms, always at the vanguard of an exciting, consumer-friendly movement like electric cars.

A dapper elderly rogue standing nearby asked me if I'd like to know more about the Swinger, since the owner had "stepped out." Howard Hutt, the president of The Electric Vehicle Society of Canada, told me that the Swinger (is that a great name or what?!) had been bought with barely 25,000 miles on it. When I told him I'd had one just like it, he asked me if I still had it! I wish!

Still going strong at 89, Howard pushed his sunglasses off his nose to tell me about his EV, a Ford Ranger that was one of 400 that barely escaped being crushed by Ford. What is it about the Big Three crushing their EVs?! He said the lead acid battery no longer worked, and although alternate battery packs were available, they were just too expensive. In its heyday, the Ranger was powered by 90 ponies in its water-cooled engine and could get Howard from Ajax to Oakville. Impressive for 80s technology.

When Howard told me he'd been a steam engineer in the Canadian Navy, I knew he was my kinda guy. Next meeting of the EV Society? I'll be there.