Regular readers of this page are familiar with my obsession with vehicles. True enough, my current column in Premier Guitar maps out paralells between guitars and cars. So please forgive me if I dwell a bit more on the full-throttle side of my brain.
In addition to hanging out in my shop and building guitars, I write for automotive publications and websites, including Carspondent.com, home of the Active Lifestyle Vehicle awards. ALV is the only car-of-the-year program to combine the input of nationally-recognized automotive journalists with elite and area athletes to determine which cars and trucks best meet the needs of buyers with active lifestyles. To my delight, I was asked to participate as a member of the judging panel. As a bicycle enthusiast and outdoorsman-by-default, I felt that I could at least add loading guitars and amps into the vehicles as a real-world test. Our mission: drive and evaluate thirty two vehicles in seven categories.
This year, the ALV evaluations were held in Phoenix, Arizona at the home of Local Motors, builders of incredible off-road vehicles—drool-worthy machines from hell. The event was also sponsored by OnStar and world-famous collector car auction powerhouse Russo and Steele.
Below is a view inside the Local Motors factory. LM treated us to a nice breakfast buffet and a tour of the facilities. Through the windows behind the Astroturf seating area you can see into the engineering studio.
Seeing the Rally Fighters being built up close was a thrill. I’d followed the evolution of the company over the years so it was a priveledge to be invited inside.
Lusting over the stripped down and purposeful machines along with me were with esteemed journalists (and heroes of mine) Larry Edsall and Denise McCluggage. If you’re a car person, Larry and Denise probably need no introduction. For those who aren’t familiar I’ll say that if there’s a subject in the automotive world that Larry hasn’t published something on I have yet to find it. Apart from being a fine author, journalist and motorsports photographer, Denise drove a Ferarri for Luigi Chinetti’s organization (NART) and was class winner at the Sebring International 12 hour in 1961. Unphased by A-list rock stars, I was thrilled and nervous to meet her.
Also on hand was former Indy 500 racer Lyn St. James. Before Danica Patrick, Lyn was Indy’s first female Rookie of the Year in the first of her seven 500s. In 1995 she set the world record on a closed-course for women—averaging 225.722 mph. Yow!
I was hoping to ride shotgun with Lyn testing the 550 horsepower Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon. This thing has got some serious grunt—sort of a Corvette station wagon. By the way, the Caddy would make a slick ride to get you to a gig—as many musicians tend to run late. It actually will swallow up a half-stack, three guitars and a pedalboard with the rear seats folded down. If you are playing club gigs and can afford this ride, you’re probably doing it for fun anyway. Here during the initial walk around Lyn is casting a glance at the Range Rover Evoque.
Despite my initial impression that it was a watered-down suburbanite car, the Evoque intrigued me in person. Small enough to get into my garage at home (hint) it was nimble and fun to toss around. The interior was pure joy, with double stitched leather everywhere. Powered by a turbocharged four cylinder, the Evoque is at once a throwback to the original Land Rovers and a look at the future of the marque. I had to ask the brand specialist if it was indeed a four—it was fairly spunky. I barely know who Victoria Beckham is, but I think this car is sexy. Will it go offroad? I think most buyers never will.
Another favorite of mine was the new Fiat. Like a blast from the past, Fiat comes back to American roads with this funky little car. Although totally worthless as a musician’s gigmobile due to a miniscule cargo area, I had to vote it up as one of the most enjoyable rides. The smile on my face as I zipped through the Phoenix traffic was almost as big as when I floored the Caddy. The exterior color cues inside the car were a nice touch.
Surprisingly quiet, the Fiat registered an average of 62 db at 60 mph—about the same as my Audi S4. For comparison, the Audi Q7 on hand was about 59db and the Cadillac was 56db.
My driving partner, Ironman triathlete Jeremy Hendricks and I both found the Mazda 5 to be well thought out and comfortable. In most categories the Mazda was unceremoniously capable. From ease of loading to seat comfort and control placement, it checked all the right boxes. The 5’s proficient yet unremarkable personality won its class with a rational-minded score, yet neither of us could envision owning one. Personally, the “Zoom Zoom” whisper on the TV comercials has lost my vote for any of their products. How’s that for pretzel logic?
Audi had their Q7 and A7 make the final cut. I was surprised how the Q7 felt much lighter and managable than its size and weight might indicate. Probably the most refined of the bunch, the A7 seemed slightly out of place among the scrappy Kias, Nissans and VWs. It wasn’t for me to drive as its popularity with the testers kept it too busy all day. Shame, it probably would have spoiled me for the rest.
Out on Local Motors’ off-road test track, the Land Rovers and Jeeps were trundling over basketball-sized rocks at a moderately slow pace—both showing strong trail manners. Until I lived in New England I had no clue about how this sort of thing could ever be important.
Then, to put things into perspective, Local Motors rolled out their Rally Fighter (road legal in 50 states) and hammered through the course at 40+ mph. The LM test driver got a little air and tested the 20 inch suspension travel with photo-spy Brenda Priddy aboard. Go Brenda!
Next year, I’m driving that.
Without sounding like a kiss-ass, I’d have to say that there wasn’t a bad vehicle in the bunch. Just to make it into the finals, a car has to be of a significantly high quality—which made our evaluations difficult. There were some surprises, and the Jeep over Land Rover turnabout demands a rematch. Believe me, the manufacturers are already hard at work stepping it up.
After a day of driving dozens of vehicles and hanging out with great, enthusiastic people it was time to go back to the hotel and chill before dinner. That evening’s fare was the fourth mexican meal I’d had in two days, but the stories and comraderie were the best part. I wasn’t surprised how many car people were also guitarists. I’m already looking ahead to next year. Now, if I can just score an Evoque for a long-term test.
The evaluations took into consideration overall design, engine power, fuel efficiency, and cargo capability. In the final tally, the athletes’ votes and those of the jury panel members each accounted for fifty percent.
Following are the winners of the 2012 competition by category:
Best Value On-Road: Subaru Impreza
Best Value Off-Road: Jeep Wrangler
Luxury On-Road: Audi A7
Luxury Off-Road: Jeep Grand Cherokee
Green ALV: Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI
Family: Audi Q7 TDI
Many thanks to Automotive Spy Photographer extraordinaire Brenda Priddy for her generous help with the photos for this story.
Photos ©2011 Brenda Priddy and Company (except Cadillac stock photo and my crappy cell phone pics).
Correction: I previously wrote that Denise McCluggage had been the first woman to race for the Ferarri factory team, which is not true. Her association was with Chinetti’s North American Racing Team-the US Ferarri Distributor.