Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Roads of the Northeast #1: Route 44/55 in New Paltz & Gardiner, NY - w/Pictures & Video

This is the first installment in a series of articles featuring the roads of the Northeast, in an attempt to help enthusiasts locate and increase their knowledge of where these roads lie and why they are great.  There's big emphasis here on bringing out the driver in those of us who live in this region, so sit back, read along, and then go for a drive!  The anecdotes that follow are meant to inform but also to entertain.  Enjoy, and report back!

Road #1 - Route 44/55 through New Paltz and Gardiner, NY

There's a smell in the air.  This high in the mountains, a smell this strong could be a number of things: pollen blowing in the wind, dead animal in the woods, you name it.  But no, it's not natural; this smells mechanical.  And, much to my dismay, it's coming from my Chevy Avalanche's stopping hardware, spewing its tears in the form of the horrible smell of burning brakes, the result of hustling the vehicle through the mountains at a rate no 6,000-pound SUV/pickup-thing should be driven.  Bringing the Avy was a double-edged sword, one head bearing the sad duty of moving the last of my furniture out of the college apartment in the town I called home for the previous four years, the other head showing its teeth and fighting every bit of the way as I pushed the truck to its physical limit, camera rolling, to create a "sense" (if you can call it that, at 1/2 the speed a proper sports car could run on the same road) of the beautiful, terrifying, and challenging Route 44/55 that twists, turns, and climbs through the famous Shawangunk Mountains outside the small, historic, "upstate" town of New Paltz.

Situated about 80 miles north of NYC on the west side of the Hudson River, New Paltz is a town famous for its Kiplinger's-ranked "best value small public university," for its historic heritage dating back to the Huguenots in the late 1600's, and, to be honest, for its reputation as a hippie haven laden with drugs and more hat-tips to the Woodstock era (the location being only an hour west) than you can or would like to count.  But make your way down Main Street, across the bridge, through the country-side, pull a right when you get to the "T" at the Mountain Brauhaus Restaurant, and you've found yourself a road worthy of every driving enthusiast's attention, time, and praise.

Think, for a moment, of what makes the perfect road.  Hairpins?  Elevation changes?  Long sweepers, banked corners, natural slaloms, decreasing radius turns?  Sights, scenery, sections to test your brakes and sections to test your go-pedal?  If you're imagining your favorite road, you know what I'm talking about.  It's like the Pythagorean Theorem for driving: just the right amount of each and it all adds up, but too much of one and it's not perfect.  The road we have here is just that: the Pythagorean Theorem of roads.

Up in the scenic mountains known to the locals as the "Gunks" lies a stretch of pavement that combines the best of all of these into one beautiful, well-planned road that serves as a great drive and only gets better the harder you work your car.  Starting at the bottom on the New Paltz side with the hairpin as the beginning, your smile only gets bigger and bigger until you exit through what almost seems like a cloud-level passageway into the Hudson Valley.  Toward the end of the scenic area that's filled with parks and hiking spots, the road makes one final quick climb and you come through a small cut-out of the rocks that brings you out onto the backside of the mountain, revealing the entire valley hiding on the other side.  Once you're out past this section, turn around and drive it in the opposite direction, with the hairpin at the end.  It's just as, if not more, rewarding.

But what about in-between Heaven's Gate and the hairpin?  A slew of banked turns, long sweepers, and the perfect combination of technical and flat-out sections will bring out the best, and the worst, in whatever it is you decide to attack the mountain behind the wheel of.  Hang out at one of the overlooks or pull-offs and you're guaranteed to see a fair share of sports bikes that pass by, their riders enjoying the scenery and surfaces on their two-wheelers.  Occasionally you can see a car-lover blasting up the mountain in his toy, exhaust echoing off the geologic gold-mine of sedimentary rock that serves as the "walls," but beware of the tourist who is driving painstakingly slow trying to take in the sights.

If you're in the area, spending the time to travel the length of this road is an absolute must.  Drive it in the spring in a track car, drive it in the summer in a convertible, drive it in the winter in a Subaru, but save the drive in the fall for the car you call your favorite.  Attacking the curves and climbs in your most beloved vehicle makes you enjoy its company more and more, and the layout enables you to push the car in a way few other roads allow you to.  The scenery, with the wide variety of foliage that creates the amazing rainbow of colors the Hudson Valley is famous for, along with the way the clouds play with the sun and its shadows, is stunning and utterly beautiful.  Ironic, isn't it, that high in the mountains above a town known for being able to get you high lies its true treasure.

Turn your speakers up to hear a little of the Avalanche's exhaust

This last bit is a personal section and goes back to those brakes that are cooling off as I shoot photos for this article.  Readers, forgive me, for I have sinned: I've driven a five-seat passenger vehicle with ten inches of ground clearance as if it were a track toy.  Though if the motto, "it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow" were to be true, this is the prime example.  I sincerely wish I could have driven a faster, more appropriate car for the video, but hell, this is what driving is all about: pushing your vehicle.  My Chevy Avalanche was, despite 120K miles and the truck (YES AN AVALANCHE IS A TRUCK) having seen better days, it was a more than willing dance partner considering what it is.  Oh, and remember that some people like to drive vehicles the way they aren't meant to be driven.  This is the opposite case of guy who buys a Ferrari and never goes over the speed limit and never tries to put the pedal through the floorboard and never uses it the way Enzo would have wanted.  I love my Avalanche, and if I want to drive it like a sports car, nothing is going to stop me...especially on a road as good as this.

Bonus find for this road: read up on "Shaft 2A" and plan enough time to go for a hike.  You have to park at the end of the dirt track (getting there is half the adventure!), find the river on the other side of the valley that looks like it could be in The Hills Have Eyes, and follow the river up-stream for a good while, but the payoff is a breathtaking 90-foot waterfall.  The best part?  After a few hours of hiking, you can still enjoy the road on your way back into town.  Better days are hard to find.

- Ross, 7/31/13

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: 2003 Honda Accord Coupe V6/6MT

Not bad, not great, simply good all-around: it's the Goldilocks of the affordable coupe segment

No, you won't fall in love with it, but when paired with the V6 engine and six-speed manual transmission, the seventh generation Honda Accord Coupe is a good car in every discipline.  The two-door defines the idea of not being great at anything in particular but being genuinely good at everything, just as an entrant in this segment should be.  With a 244-horsepower 3.0-liter V6, a smooth, easy to drive stick-shift, and a ride comfortable enough for any surface, this car is one of the most surprisingly pleasant vehicles I've driven.  It isn't going to replace a proper rear-drive coupe as your dream car, but it's very easily a car you could enjoy owning.

From a design standpoint, the Coupe is sleek, if not understated.  Nothing screams aggression here; this is a smooth, well-proportioned design, perhaps the best looking body style of the Accord Coupes.  The wheel-wells flow into the fenders which in turn transition almost too effortlessly into the heart of the body.  If anything the car is almost too subtle, but that's part of what makes it an Accord.  17" wheels compliment the body well, with just enough style but not too much to stand out, further contributing to the under-the-radar mojo.  Luckily, the exterior's good looks translate well into the place you spend most of your time, and perhaps equally as importantly, to what motivates the vehicle.

Inside, it's more of exactly what you have come to expect from Honda: simple controls, well-thought out placement of fundamental knobs and buttons, good material quality for the segment, and a fit-and-finish that reminds you of why the company was doing so well in the early 2000's.  At the core of the interior is the car's 6-speed manual transmission; it reminds you of the V6's sporting intentions, whether the rest of the car wants to cooperate or not.  From first all the way through sixth it's the kind of transmission you can easily drive day-in and day-out, never skipping a beat and never wishing it was lighter or easier to operate.  The shift knob itself, with the traditional 1-6 pattern engraved atop the metal cylinder, feels great in your hand and is always easy to maneuver into the next gate.  Unfortunately for those heel-and-toe aficionados, the pedals are spaced a little too far apart for it to truly be a sporting setup; you better have big feet or it's going to be a struggle.  Regardless of this sole seemingly irrelevant ergonomic flaw, the seats, controls, steering wheel, and the stickshift itself are all well placed, well crafted, and enjoyable on the verge of overly-simplistic to operate.  All in all it's a good interior that is a comfortable and enjoyable place to spend time, but it never makes you want to misbehave or, on the contrary, shoot for the best gas mileage you can achieve.  Like everything else about this car, it's right in the middle...but that's not a bad thing.

The Accord's shock factor comes from the engine under-hood: it has the kind of surprising power that works perfectly in a car like this.  The torque comes on smoothly and in a linear manner without any drama, and it does so in an unexpectedly fast manner.  The whole package is so composed and so quiet that before you know it the speedometer is reading double-digits higher than you should actually be moving.  Really, the car is silent, and if it weren't for the break between gears to shift (oh, and the speedometer) you would have no idea of your speed.  Smooth, light shift action makes things even easier, and though rowing through the Accord's gears isn't life-changingly exciting, it's still nice to be have control of the power that you wouldn't otherwise have without the 3rd pedal nestled in its proper slot.  Alright, maybe I'm making the car sound faster and more enjoyable to drive than it truly is, but this setup is really is properly quick for a car of this nature, and the claimed low 6-second sprint to sixty is entirely believable.

Usually, fuel economy is compromised by power, yet somehow the Honda engineers allowed them to meet right in the middle.  EPA estimates put the V6/6MT combo at 18 MPG city and 27 MPG highway, but remember, these are "estimates" from ten years ago, before the system for evaluating gas mileage was revised more times than can be counted.  Translation: in real-world driving, your mileage will vary.  Yes, you can see lower than estimated city numbers if you're stuck in the lower three gears, but the flip side is that you can also see gas mileage figures that best the EPA highway estimate by two-to-three miles per gallon.  At a 65-70 MPH cruise in 6th gear, 30 miles on a gallon is easily attainable, and if it's flat and you have a tailwind you can even creep into the 32 MPG range, a number usually unseen by V6, six-speed cars without fuel-saving technology from modern vehicles.  Average figures usually show mid-20's, and owners report that this is only marginally lower than those seen by owners of the 4-cylinder models.  My recommendation: if you have the money, opt for the 6-6 (V6 & 6-speed) combo, it's a smooth, reliable (dare I even say borderline fun?) powertrain that is worth every penny over the volume-seller I4.

On the road the Accord feels compliant and composed, never making you question for a second Honda's reliability or quality.  Even approaching and cresting ten years old, the car still feels entirely safe and substantial on the road.  Though the last decade has brought about numerous safety breakthroughs, the 7th-gen Accord still instills an air of confidence in the driver, part of which is due to a suspension setup that rides well over any and all surfaces.  While other cars are unsettled by potholes and changes in road surfaces, the Accord just keeps on pushing.  It's the kind of car you can drive across the country and never have a problem with comfort or with controlling the vehicle.  As the automatic transmission takes the place as the country's favorite way to shift gears, the manual equipped Accord truly is easy enough to drive that you could for hours on end.  If you're looking for a great road-trip vehicle but don't want anything super sporty, want to achieve decent gas mileage while still having adequate power, and have a tight budget, look no further: this is your car.

So, back to the suspension: it's soft without being Cadillac, pillow-plush, it's smooth without totally isolating you from the road, and it's just firm enough to remind you that you're in a car that has a Honda, and not an Acura, logo on the grille.  The tires have enough sidewall to help cushion the ride - no low-profile nonsense here - and enough stiffness to help in the handling department.  No, this isn't a sports coupe, but it's not your average family sedan either.  The Coupe's proportions and engine/transmission are enough to urge you to drive the car a little harder in the corners than you would its four-door counterpart, but with the V6 weighing more than the volume-seller I4 and thus a chassis more suited to a lighter front end, the car does have the tendency to push a little in the turns, reminding you of its front-drive nature and that this isn't a rear-drive sports car.  That being said, it does a great job of bridging the gap between a front-drive econo coupe, a front-drive sports-oriented coupe, and a front-drive entry-level luxo-coupe.  It's the bread-and-butter of the coupe world, combining fun and frugality without giving up all of its practicality (yes, the back seats are usable for adults).

Let's get to the bottom line here: Honda's seventh generation Accord Coupe is a properly decent car.  It's not bad and it's not great: it's just right.  By doing everything well, failing at nothing, and having no extraordinary qualities, the car manages to be exceptional at being good.  It's a car that's easy to afford, easy to drive, and easy to live with.  It will never light your pants on fire with excitement but it'll never break your bank either.  You can drive it every day without a struggle, and in an entry-level coupe with surprising power and agility, that's exactly how it needs to be.  Good at everything?  Just right?  Let's call it Goldilocks.

- Ross, 7/25/13

Friday, July 19, 2013

Bear Mountain Cruise Night 7/17/13 Coverage

Seeing as this was my first time at the Bear Mountain Cruise Night, I'm not one to talk...but this is a shout-out to any and every car fan within reasonable driving distance of Bear Mountain in Tompkin's Cove (across from Peekskill), specifically those who are free on Wednesday nights between 6-9pm during the summer months.  That's right, I'm talking to you: if you fit this demographic, you NEED to come to the Bear Mountain Cruise Night.  The expanse of vehicles is astonishing, the owners all friendly and willing to talk, and the crowd in attendance staggeringly large.  With cars, enthusiasts, and spectators representing every decade from the 1930s to today, it's a show that is absolutely worth making the drive for.  With the perfect formula comes the perfect summer night recipe: cars of every kind + great people + beautiful backdrop = a great, automotive-infused event.  The Cruise Nights run all summer (weather permitting) and attract what is truly a great crowd of both cars and car fans.  It's the kind of event where you go once and immediately want to go back, already thinking about where you want to start your walk-around of the show green when you get there next time.  Oh, and the roads to the park are as equally rewarding, as if you needed more incentive.  I'll be there next Wednesday, will you?

- Ross, 7/19/13

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Foreshadowing: What's next on Roody's RT&R?

The future is bright.  Coming up on Roody's reviews, thoughts and ramblings, there's going to be an assortment of articles chock-full of all the automotive goodness you want and need.  You'll find capsule reviews (that is, cars no longer on sale today but available certified pre-owned for a fraction of what they cost new), editorials, an exhaust review, an attempt to convince Chevy to continue production of the Avalanche, coverage of local car meets, and hopefully some video to go along with all of the pictures.  Oh, and if things fall into place there might even be progress on the e30 project that is coming along at a standstill.  And on a non-article related note, there might be a name change for the blog, so stay tuned!

For now, here's a quick look a few of the cars to be reviewed in upcoming months:
- Honda Accord Coupe V6 6MT
- Subaru WRX Hatch
- Lancer Evo. X
- Lexus LS460
- Acura Integra Coupe

- Ross, 7/2/13