Friday, October 26, 2012

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dear Internal Combustion Engine: Our romance is on the rocks

Dear Mr. Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) - did you really think our romance could last? Did you notice it's $1.36/L for gas in Toronto now? As if gas was ever a swell price to begin with. No, Mr. ICE, you’ll have to do better to win back our love.

And the thing is, you’ve got competition.  Last Sunday we attended the 2012 Electric Vehicle Fest at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks and our hearts were seriously swayed. 

We liked a dark red 2011 Nissan Leaf, nicknamed “BEV” for Battery Electric Vehicle. Owner Renny adores BEV’s generous tush and sang her praises like a love-struck schoolboy. She even talks to him as he drives, letting him know how efficiently he’s driving. Her dashboard sprouts trees to encourage him. When Renny turns BEV on, she welcomes him into the driver’s seat with his choice of sounds. Best of all, she only costs about $1/day to run. And even though BEV cost $49,000 (minus a government rebate of $8,500), Renny reckons he will have paid the difference between what he paid for BEV and a similar ICE vehicle in three short years. That’s great news, since he has a daily commute of 60k. Renny loves to advertise how much he’s saving on gas – BEV’s licence plate reads GAS LOL. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Renny doesn’t miss much about the Internal Combustion Engine. He says BEV rockets up to speed with no sweat, since electric vehicles all have torque at the low end. And he’s got a handy iPhone app that not only lets him know how much battery power is left, it allows him to cool or warm BEV’s interior remotely. Now THAT's magical.

Mitsubishi’s adorable 2011 i-MiEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle) isn’t quite as fancy, but that’s the whole point. It gets the gasoline equivalent of 248 mpg, and owner Michael estimates it costs him about $1.25/150 k to operate. He had been crushing on the i-MiEV since he saw it at the Green Living show – it set him back some $30,000, after which he received an $8,200 government rebate. 

Another i-MiEV owner, David, points out that the Mitsu dash was deliberately designed to look more like you, Mr. ICE, with a speedo, fuel gauge and heater, so that we won’t miss you that much. (As if!) The i-MiEV has no touch screens or butterflies on the dash, just a gauge that shows if you’re driving in eco mode. The Mitsu’s range is about 155 k’s – its battery is only 16 kwh, compared to the Nissan’s 24 kwh, which makes it lighter. Note that Mitsu makes its own battery!

All of which makes us wonder, where are all the charging stations? After all, if we’re going to head out on the road in an EV, we’d like to know where we can fill up. Here’s where it gets a little confusing. There are some websites like which show charging stations everywhere from public stations to private residences in North America. But how up-to-date is it?

Apparently Hydro can’t develop their own charging stations – that’s been left to the private sector. But although the private sector can, and has been building these stations, they can’t charge for the hydro. And what about charging etiquette? Can I reserve a spot at the charging station of my choice? Or is it like the local wings‘n’ribs joint – first come, first serve?

Maybe things were different in 1916 – that’s when the Rauch and Lang electric carriage was built. Ladies and gents had separate doors, the engine started with a crank, and a tiller controlled the steering. Another lever controlled the speed. Brakes were a button on the floor, and a bell in the floor shooed horses off the roadway.

It’s practically civilized. Which – is more than I can say for you, Mr. Gas Guzzling ICE. Unless you clean up your act … our romance may be over.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mazda MX5 Miata follows La Contessa home

It was just after one of those steamy mid-summer downpours when La Contessa noticed something following her. A magnificent 2012 red Mazda Miata MX5 SV, raindrops still glistening on its black retractable hardtop roof, dogging my every step. It practically sat up and begged me to take it home. How could I resist? 

It was exciting just to behold -  this most current model of the classic Mazda roadster promised to be even more fun than its predecessors. The exterior was all hard muscular bulges, a far cry from its coyly rounded jellybean origins. Inside, the cockpit and leather seats were surprisingly roomy, and welcomed my tush like an old friend. I loved the sand coloured stitching on the black leather – it perfectly complemented my blonde colouring.

As I fondled the six-speed gearshift, I thought back to my days in Devon, England and dear Cousin Pip (yes, as in Great Expectations). She was the one who taught this pup all about the stick shift, as we streaked along the twisty British cliffside roads in a racing green MGB. The joy of the wind in our fur, as we peeled up the slopes and down into the valleys, and then finally, always, triumphantly, to the beach … our natural habitat in those heady summer days. 

Before speeding off to the beach, we slipped down the top on the MX5. A cinch! One flip of a lever here, a push of a button there, and the sky was unfurled above. Away we went, rowing happily through the six gears, revelling in the engine's throaty snarl - almost as gorgeous as my own. It was intoxicating to drive, like a good roll in the hot sand. Like an eager puppy, the roadster leapt forward and around curves, responding to the slightest whisper of a command.

And oh how it made us want to misbehave, redlining at the traffic light, nipping in and around clumsy sedans, speeding into turns, just because - we could. With the wind blasting through our furry nape, snug in our cockpit, the spirited roadster took us further and faster into an exuberant ride - without even leaving the confines of the stuffy old GTA.

Finally, we arrived at our beach destination, and I took a few moments to explore the MX5's crevices and crannies - space was at a premium, and I wanted to know where to hide my stashables. Well! A good sized bin behind the seats provided enough room for a travelling bag of dog food, as well as holding the gas cap release. Treats to the Mazda engineers who dreamed up the hiding cup holders in the centre console! But the trunk, alas, was barely big enough for my overnight satchel.

Then again, who needs practicality? Like myself, the MX5 is designed for sport and show. You can keep your clunky wagons and trucks, when it's time to snake down the road in pure fun and exhilaration, this spunky little machine easily takes best of show ... just like me.

Friday, July 27, 2012

La Contessa says, "Fiat accompli!"

Who would have dreamed that the car company responsible for such machismo metal as the Challenger and the Barracuda would one day be rescued by a little Italian? These days, FIAT definitely doesn’t stand for Fix It Again Tony!

But La Contessa knows that life – vita mia - is full of irony, and relishes it. Almost as much as I adore the new Fiat 500, which in the old days we called Cinquecento. Ti adoro! My tail wags just to think of that August I spent with Cousin Giuseppe in Cassino, Frosinone. Giuseppe was the love child of a liaison between his maman and the local firehall’s Dalmation, and he has the lovely spots to prove it! A proud member of Italy’s Vigili del Fuco (The Firewatchers),  he lives with a fireman who collects the Cinquecento in all its charming derivatives. Our favourite is the Ferves Ranger, a 4WD Fiat used – yes - in fighting fires.

Enough reminiscing! Back to our new Fiat 500, which pays homage to its cherished ancestor in many styling cues, from the wide-eyed headlights to the friendly silhouette. Inside, everything is compact and thoughtfully placed – although it took us a bit to get used to the centre dial, where speedometer, gas gauge, temperature gauge, clock, speed, odometer, tachometer, radio station, gear and the outside temperature are contained in a six-inch diameter readout. Anima mia, a model of efficiency.

Where Fiat plans to install the espresso machine, we can’t imagine. Not the trunk, which is too tiny to fit more than a weekend’s luggage for a single pup like myself. Was that perhaps the inspiration for JLo’s commercial? Was there a hidden message equating JLo’s ample booty to the teeny Fiat trunk? Oh wait, that whole commercial was a fake, right ...

As we cruised along Little Italy, we slid back the sunroof to breathe in the summer breeze, loving the screen that kept our fur in place. We stopped for a gelato, and took a few minutes to check out our little tesoro. Red is our favourite colour, and it sprang up in devilish little details, from the FIAT badge to the calipers in the natty 15-inch wheels, and even inside the engine. Tootling along busy College Street, we loved squeezing between the 506 College streetcar and a silly Purolator truck, nipping in and out of traffic, and pulling u-turns in front of Escalades. Che divertimento!

And we loved the 101 HP engine – how those Italian engineers must have sweated out that one extra HP. Perfecto for city traffic and the urban lifestyle – that’s how La Contessa rolls. Call us a chick, call us a girly girl, but don’t call before noon because we’re busy being fabulous.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

La Contessa gets bitten by a Bug

There were certain members of La Contessa’s family who swore never to ride in a Volkswagen because they considered it Hitler’s little car. But from Hitler to the hippies who made it a counter-culture icon, the Beetle has always been one of the more controversial and therefore beloved of my vehicles.

When we heard the new 2012 Beetle redesign was out, ach du lieber! we were thrilled. We loved the original reincarnation, especially since it was immediately dubbed a “chick car.” Why this is a marketing kiss of death, we’ll never understand. The 2012 version is truer to the original Beetle, with a less rounded, flatter silhouette and sitting much lower. In fact, it’s more butch and sporty than the first reincarnation, although the original Beetle never was. Our model was aptly named Tornado Red, and indeed, with 170 hp - yes, I checked under the hood! it tornadoed rather than beetled down the highway.

We decided to take a jaunt to Kitchener, which as you know was once named Berlin, with a hefty number of Germanic people and influences. As soon as we arrived at the Concordia Club and saw the German flag waving at us, we thought of  Cousin Ute, who was born in the German town of Wolfsberg, home to the massive Volkswagen plant. She lived with the groundskeeper of the castle that was appropriated from the Earl of Schulenberg by Hitler to create this town. It’s rumoured that the groundskeeper is a distant relative of the Earl, but who knows?

Sch├Ątzchen Ute is a font of knowledge about all things VW, and despite being a glamorous and modern Berliner now, always rides in a Beetle. She told me that it wasn’t necessarily Ferdinand Porsche who designed the Beetle, but possibly a Czech designer named Hans Ludwinka with whom Porsche apprenticed – or even a Jewish engineer named Josef Ganz. Really, Hitler wasn’t much of a car guy – he didn’t even have a driver’s licence.

Furthermore, plans for the Beetle to go into mass production were somewhat sidetracked by Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The Beetle as we came to know it owes much to to a little known British solider, Major Ivan Hirst, who stumbled across a couple of prototypes in the Wolfsberg factory – which was due to be scrapped by the victorious Allies and used for war reparations. Hirst realized the factory could be better utilized for producing cars for the British army and the assembly lines started beetling along.

Isn’t Ute a clever girl? I thought of her as I examined the lovely red Beetle, with its black interior and snazzy red accents. The dash was smaller, and can no longer accommodate a game of solitaire, gott sei dank! But we missed the bud vase, a fun, playful touch so absent in today’s car designs. The tiny glove compartment must have been lifted out of an original Beetle, so teeny it could barely accommodate my muzzle. Yet, the trunk was roomy enough to fit several cases of beer and wurst.

We had a glorious time with the 2012 Beetle, and hope people realize the monicker “chick car” is actually a lofty compliment – one that translates into style, affordability, and all the power you need. And that truly is wunderbar!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Share and share alike

Is it any coincidence that a few days after car2go launched its carsharing service in Toronto, the T-Dot was named as the world’s eighth most livable city? Toronto was the only city in North America to make the list – by no less an authority than The Economist.

Tipping the scale in Hogtown’s favour was its greenery and clean air – not so much, the urban sprawl and lack of cultural assets. 

Providing a plethora of transportation alternatives is one way that Toronto has been working on its status as a livable city – this keeps pollution down and parks from becoming parking lots. And with car2go, there is now an ingenious way to carshare, only paying for the time you use the car – even if it’s as little as 5 minutes. Their blue and white smart fortwo cars are easily found through a free smartphone app, with no reservation necessary. All a subscriber needs is a membership card and a reason to drive. It’s just ingenious.

Other carsharing programs in Toronto include the pioneering all-Canadian AutoShare, which launched waaay back in 1998, and the U.S.-based Zipcar. The differences between the organizations are less important than the fact that they offer individuals an affordable way to drive a car. As in other urban centres, it’s increasingly expensive to own a car in Toronto – in 2010, Toronto was the second most expensive place to park in Canada, with an annual rate of $336.26.

But there’s more good news. The Montreal-based bike-sharing Bixi program, proudly marked its first anniversary in Toronto in May, and proclaimed its membership of 1,000 had taken over 550,000 rides. That’s a lot of people riding through rain, sleet and snow as well as sunshine.

It’s all part of the collaborative economy, which is based on sharing. That’s a welcome trend away from conspicuous consumption, and takes an altruistic bent towards business. Naturally, its most enthusiastic participants are young folk, who are concerned about the environment, rabid social media users, and perhaps a little less than flush.

Possibly they are also not so quietly rebelling against the excess and waste that they grew up with – one study found that the average household in the U.S. has $3,000 worth of items lying around unused.

Do we need to define ourselves by our possessions? Maybe -  it’s better to define ourselves by who we share with...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Microcar North lights up La Contessa

Nothing puts a happy grin on La Contessa’s snout faster than a microcar, and when you have a lush green lawn full of micros, well! I am in microcar ecstasy. This is exactly what happened last weekend at Ralph and Wendy Hough’s MicroNorth, where the micros came from near and far.  Every year, Ralph and Wendy graciously open up their beautiful home in Coldwater, Ontario, to microcar enthusiasts from all over North America. The tiny cars dotted the expansive lawn like bright shiny gems on wheels – che belle!

Most of these were vintage vehicles, highly prized collector’s items, and their owners have coddled them like pedigreed pups. A micro, as you know, is any vehicle with an engine under 500 cc. They were wildly popular in the 1950s, when gas was scarce. Many of the little cars had only three wheels, which in England and Germany, meant their owners paid half the road tax. Ingenious, mais non?

Here in North America, we must wait for invitations to events like MicroNorth to enjoy these diminutive darlings. Ralph Hough himself, a strapping six-foot former policeman, has a collection of Messerschmitts, many of which were displayed on the lawn. He got his extremely rare 1955 KR175 red Schmitt in Montreal, where its original owner had brought it from England – the poor car was literally a basket case! Only 10,000 of the KR175 were built between 1953 and 1955, so parts were scarce. Of course Ralph sleuthed out the necessary parts, including the factory original option “suitcase,” custom built to fit in the tiny luggage space.

We loved the pale yellow 1957 Isetta, so much like dear cousin Rosalia’s, who keeps company with the town doctor in the southern Italian town of Campobasso. Oh, the hot summers we enjoyed, travelling along the Biferno river in the mountains. This Isetta even had a wicker basket on the back like Rosalia’s, perfect for picnics. What that clever girl, or cucciune as the doctor would say, could do with a little prosciutto and provolone! Like all Isettas, this one had a one cylinder 300 cc Hemi engine – yes, that’s right, a Hemi. Raise your hand if you know that any engine with a hemispherical cylinder head is called a Hemi. The Isetta story is one of my favourites – they were originally manufactured by an Italian company called Iso, which made refrigerators. Isetta simply means “little Iso.” Sitting in the little car, my nose thrilled to the scent of vintage leather and two-stroke – and I could almost smell the prosciutto

Then it was on to a smart red 1957 Berkeley convertible, one of only 1,281 made in Biggleswade, Bedforshire. Owner Jeff had been working on it for over 13 years, with astounding results. The fibreglass shell had held up remarkably well! Who knows, perhaps La Contessa was sitting in the same model that famed racecar driver Stirling Moss had once championed at Goodwood?

And then, complete shock. A real, live beige 1981 Syrena from Poland. Owner Slawek had brought it over five years ago. With its 850 cc engine, it perhaps exceeded the microcar standards, but I didn’t care. I have not seen a Syrena since the days in Krakow, visiting with cousin Agnieszka. We would smuggle contraband onto the black market and then feast on forbidden delicacies like Baltic caviar? Smacznego! Who would suspect two pretty tail-wagging blondes? 

But it was Kate and her thoroughly gorgeous red 1980 MGB that won our hearts. She graciously invited us to tour the scenic roads around Coldwater in the microcar convoy, and pointed out sights like an osprey nest. Long, lean and tanned, Kate was a force of nature, getting ready to visit family in Scotland and Ireland, in the midst of renovating her house on Bass Lake, and dealing with her late husband’s estate. We laughed and talked, ate walnut pecan ice cream, visited a chocolate store, stopped by a wildlife sanctuary and marvelled at the peacocks and swans. What a splendid afternoon, driving in the open air – feeling the balmy wind through my long fur was a delight, as was listening to Kate's stories.  She was quite a gal, and made our whirlwind tour of Coldwater an absolute joy. Bravissima, Kate!