Friday, June 21, 2013

The Blue Bus

Back in the nineteenth century (and the start of the twentieth) a gentleman of means would have a stable of horses. Each horse was for a specific purpose. Draft horses were large and used to pull plows and very large, heavy wagons. A quarter horse was used to round up the cattle or whatever was kept in the back forty. A thoroughbred was ridden on Saturday and you hoped your neighbor would be out on his fast horse so you could race to the nearby pub. And finally, on Sunday, you had the mare to pull the surrey to church.

Well, I’m a gentleman of means, and I, too, have a stable from which to choose just the right stallion for a given task.

First there’s the luxury sedan. It’s got imitation wood grain on the dash and plush leather seats that can warm your buns when it’s cold outside. It’s got a fancy navigation screen and purrs like a kitten. This one belongs to the lady of the house.

I’ve got a little jet-black two-seater that I use for Sunday pleasure drives in the mountains with the top down. Otherwise it is only driven in parades and shown at car shows. It is a recent model of the best sports car that has ever come out of Japan. It’s not particularly fast, but it can take a tight corner like it was on rails. That’s why I drive it on those twisty mountain roads … what fun. Although it is a 2003, making it ten years old, it only has 14,000 miles. That means I drive it an average of 1,400 miles a year. There aren’t that many parades around here.

Of course you have to have a work horse. There’s furniture to pick up at the store, and fertilizer and mulch to haul, and lumber and plywood at Lowe's, or a 60” TV for the family room. For that purpose, I’ve got a nice Toyota pickup truck. It has a large six cylinder, an eight-foot bed, and a camper shell. It’s a golden oldie, came off the line in ’93. But with only 80,000 miles its a cream puff and a looker. It used to belong to Linda’s dad, but he didn’t need it anymore and I picked it up for a premium price since the low mileage and good condition rated it high in Kelly’s Blue Book. Some lady ran into the back end of it when we were enjoying barbecue at “The Rib Shop,” but her insurance fixed it up as good as new, and now it has a brand new back bumper … remember when cars had bumpers? She’s the property of Louie since it is the only vehicle we’ll let her ride in … she sheds … you know.

But when it comes to road trips, there’s only one choice. This is the one I bought specifically for the long and winding road of retirement, and I call her the Blue Bus. She’s a Ford Flex. You may not of heard of the Flex. It’s a new model from Ford. (Remember, they were the only domestic car manufacturer that didn’t need a bail out from the Feds, so they must be doing something right.)

One of the first essays I ever wrote in my blog was about my previous transportation that was my commuting car. It was a Honda Civic Si Hatchback, a sporty little job that I bought in 1989 and got over twenty years of service. It was a good gas mileage car and fun to drive and, even after twenty plus years on the road, it was spotless inside and out. You can read about it in my post Little White Honda. It had five on the floor and I’d upgraded the sound system. It was a hatchback, so it could handle transporting sound equipment to my gigs, but it did lack a few amenities including cruise control, power steering, and cup holders.

Ode to My Little White Honda

As I approached retirement three years ago, I began to consider a replacement for the Honda. I checked out Honda’s latest Si and was very impressed. It no longer came as a hatchback, but the coupe version looked sweet and the high tech engine and accompaniments had me choosing a color. However, I wasn’t certain that was what I wanted upon retirement.

Linda had recently mentioned problems getting all the kids to the rec center. Our grandkids have a lot of cousins, and Linda liked to take them to the pool for a swim on the hot summer days, but there were more than five to drive and our Camry could only seat belt in four kids. I was also considering a small SUV and when I saw that the Toyota RAV had a third set of seats in the way-back, I became a perspective customer. However, after a trip to the dealer for a test ride, Linda and I both realized the far back seat was only adequate for pre-schoolers or small midgets. Not adult seating by any means. The larger SUVs didn’t interest me, they just didn’t fit what I had in mind.

Plus, since I already owned two Toyotas, I wasn’t sure I wanted to add a third of that brand to my fleet. Something about all your eggs and a single basket. Then I stumbled upon the Ford Flex. I saw one in the street. It was a new design and I was attracted immediately to the styling. It’s a look you will either love or hate. I think it started out with the new Scion, a brand of vehicles produced by Toyota Motor Corporation. Founded in 2002, Scion's long-term goal is to appeal to Generation Y consumers. That original model was like a shoe box on wheels. Now if you want to maximize internal volume, any geometer will tell you to chose a sphere. However, it wouldn’t look good with four wheels and the resemblance to a lemon would make it a hard sell. So the second choice is a rectangular box. And that is what the original Scion most resembled.

Now part of then look of an automobile is its scale or size, and the Scion is a very small automobile. There had been previous attempts to make a pleasing-to-the-eye small cars. Perhaps the most successful is the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Copying a look from the thirties or forties, this popular car introduced in 2002 fit the scale well. Chevy sort of followed with the HHR that looked a bit like an old panel truck. But the boxy style of the Scion seemed to catch on and was seen in the look of the Nissan Cube (as if the name didn’t make it clear the design goal) and the Kia Soul. It does appear that the younger customers like this look as both my nephew and my daughter-in-law drive Souls.

Well the Flex followed with that boxy look, but it appeared quite different in a full sized automobile. It reminded me most of the old station wagons of the sixties and seventies, although the style also owed to the new, large SUVs. The Flex is officially called a crossover although I don’t really know just what that means. Is it a hybrid of some kind? (Not to be confused with hybrid engines that run on both gas and electricity.) It was half an SUV, but what was the other half? Internally it owes some to the Taurus, another ground breaking design from Ford which did come in a wagon, but the Flex also has plenty of Ford Expedition (or Chevy Suburban) with a little Cadillac Escalade thrown in (or is it Lincoln Navigator).

My “engineer / designer” take on “Crossover” is it is half SUV and half mini-van. You get regular doors instead of sliding doors, but it isn’t quite an SUV, still more of a car … quite a luxury car … sort of a cross between a limousine and an SUV.

Like an SUV, most models are “all-wheel” drive, although some SUVs are real “four-wheel” drive — there is a difference. “All-wheel” drive is more like a Subaru or an Audi. You run power to all four wheels on the hard pavement, not just off-road.

The particular Flex I chose is only front-wheel drive. That was a conscious choice as I didn’t want to double the mechanical trouble for the small gain of extra traction. Truth be told it doesn’t snow that much here in Boulder County and front wheel drive traction is adequate for the difficult drive to the coffee shop on a rare snowy day.

The style of the Flex is a much larger scale than the miniature predecessors and the corners are more rounded. The nineteen inch — that’s big — wheels and the solid black windows and posts down the side combined with the high doors and long body give a different look to the boxy style, and Ford even added some grooves on the side to suggest the woody look from the forties and fifties. I found the style very pleasing, but I’ve met people that are not as taken by the look.

The insides, on the other hand, catch the eye of all onlookers. Car and Driver rated the back seat the most comfortable in any model and you can even get an electric refrigerator / freezer in the middle of the back seat. In the way-back are two seats that comfortably fit six-foot tall adults and all those back seats lay down to provide plenty of storage room, although I wouldn’t load lumber into such a plush interior. Those extra two seats are even a little higher than those in front, so everyone has a view down the road if you can see around the large headrests (or my large head).

The model I purchased substitutes a middle seat for the refrigerator, and will haul seven adults comfortably to a baseball game or the opera. The leather seats in front sport internal heaters and even air conditioning through tiny holes to heat or cool your buns. This big, wide, and relatively powerful car/truck is at home on the freeway and fits in the driveway, even if it’s a bit tight between those tiny white lines they paint in the parking lots these days.

As I pondered between the different vehicle purchase options, I developed a set of criteria for my next car. Heavy on my mind was the large amount of household goods we had saved after Linda’s mom died and her dad sold the house. We had kept many items intended for different family members and Linda’s two brothers live in Fairbanks, Alaska, so the problem of getting things to them was on my mind. Largest and most delicate was a four-foot tall statue of President Lincoln and his advisors called “Council of War.” This plaster of paris piece was valuable as well as fragile and there was also the antique stand upon which it sat as well as an old copper bath tub. The tub wasn’t as big as a modern tub, but a person could spend Saturday night in its sudsy embrace. Chuck wanted it to store firewood. There were box upon box of dishes and what-nots and several large framed pictures.

I had checked into shipping them to Alaska, but the estimate with crating and un-crating (the only way the shipment could be insured is if they uncrated it too) was over $3,000. Plus there were all those cousins who wanted to go swimming. So the seven passenger, lots of room for hauling features of the Flex easily tipped the balance in its direction. So I went shopping for a Flex. I found a bonanza of the vehicles down at the local Ford store and soon found the perfect, front-wheel drive only, baby blue, black interior Flex that I wanted. After a short test drive and Linda’s complete approval, I knew this was the car for us.

(Understand that Linda’s approval is rarely offered when we discuss purchases that cost tens of thousands of dollars and involve four wheels. She is my reluctant companion and only agrees to my wild-eyed ideas if I promise not to offer the salesman our first-born child. I explain what a careful negotiator I can be and she rolls her eyes. It’s an act we’ve perfected since we bought our first car together back in 1977.)

The next step was negotiation. Now I didn’t invent the idea that you never pay the sticker price when purchasing an automobile. I don’t know whose idea it was to overprice the car and require the purchaser to wrangle a better deal. Perhaps it was because of the trade-in. But I never trade in. It is always better to sell your old car independently and don’t add another factor of confusion into the already difficult discussion of just how much you must pay for your ride. It’s like a pro-am golf tournament. No matter what handicap you give to the duffer, the pro is going to out-swing and out-put you every time. After all, they do this for a living.

Still I do my best. A little research on the Internet to determine what is a fair price. Having good credit, ready cash, and no trade-in usually puts a little on my side of the table, but still most the chips are in the dealers hands.

I’ve been playing the game for over fifty years. The dance is carefully choreographed. You are to believe that the salesman (or woman) is on your side and its just that mean old sales manager you’ve got to double team. You need to write your offer on the paper and sign it, that shows you’re serious and not just a looky-lou. Then your sales agent runs to the boss to see if he’ll accept it. They never accept the first offer. It’s like an episode of Pawn Stars, and the guy behind the counter will get you every time.

This dealership has a web site with prices and the salesman kept telling me that the price on the web was the lowest price they would accept. No wheeling and dealing here at “Ford City.” Nope, just honest prices and sales staff to match. I kept saying, “I don’t have a trade-in and I’ll write you a check this very moment,” but the sales manager wouldn’t budge no matter how much the salesman seemed to be on my side.

I was not able to strike a bargain with them. We were within a five hundred dollars, but I wouldn’t give and they were all "take." Finally, I used my ultimate car buying strategy and headed for the door, where I was intercepted, as expected, by the sales manager. They don’t want to see a breathing customer get away with wallet intact. Now we’ll get down to business, I thought, but he only wanted to know if everything had gone well. I repeated my offer. He repeated his refusal. And we drove home.

Then the phone rang. It was the Ford store. I was sure they’d thought better of my offer and want me to come back with that check book I promised. However, instead of explaining that they had come to their senses and were accepting my offer, they simply wanted to assure themselves that I had had a good quality experience at their establishment. This Japanese led, Six Sigma quality stuff can go too far!

But I really wanted that car. By the time the next day dawned, I had decided to give them what they asked. However, before going back, I checked their website as the salesman had said that was the best price they would take.

To my astonishment, the information had changed, and the web showed the car at $500 less than I’d offered. I immediately called the salesman and reported my discovery to him. He said to make a copy of the web page and hurry down. I heard the sales manager yelling that it was a mistake when the salesman took the ad into him, and I fully expected they would compromise and take my last offer. But, no, they actually sold the car to me for the price lower than either side had offered on the previous day.

Someday my luck is going to wear out and I’ll have to live like regular mortals, but so far the four-leaf clover has held.

(You do have to agree that I’m the luckiest guy you know, and luck is the only explanation for the fact that my negotiations with my prospective bride some 36 years ago ended with her agreeing to bind herself to my ugly self must demonstrate a lucky nature on my part which should have gotten me some wicked lottery winnings by this time. Maybe I’ll have to buy a lotto ticket and test that hypothesis.)

So the lucky me and that beautiful bride were soon driving home in a brand new Ford Flex and planning the trips we would soon be taking.

The model I had chosen did not have the built in refrigerator/freezer, but that gave it one more seat for a complete seven passenger capability. Since the flex has a 110 volt output and a number of cigarette lighter-12 volt plug-ins that are only exceeded by the amount of cup holders, I soon had purchased a 12 volt refrigerator that looks a lot like an ice chest and that is now used to keep the cool stuff cool on long voyages of the bus. Placed next to the convenient plug-in at the back door we've got cold soda pop and lunch meat for use at the next rest stop on the voyage.

The Flex is a fascinating design from more than just the esthetic viewpoint. It has an excellent sound system designed by Sony and coupled with a computerized voice recognition gadget created by Microsoft called “Sync.” I added a classic iPod with 16 GB of storage to the built in interface, and I’m now able to enjoy my over 7,000 songs via commands such as “play artist the beatles” or “play genre rock and roll” or “play all.” The sound system does include Sirius satellite radio, but I’ve never subscribed having a pretty good playlist of my own.

Borrowing a few words from Wikipedia, here’s a complete description of the Flex in case you are in the market.

The Ford Flex is a full-size crossover utility vehicle(CUV) manufactured by the Ford Motor Company. Its styling is based on the Ford Fairlane concept unveiled at the 2005 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, MI. The production vehicle made its debut at the 2007 New York International Auto Show. Sales of the Flex began in summer of 2008 as a 2009 model. The Flex is produced on the same assembly line as the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX mid-size CUVs at the Oakville Assembly plant in Oakville, Ontario, where the first Flex was driven off the line at the beginning of June 2008. The Flex replaced the Ford Freestar minivan and was the first CUV to feature both minivan and SUV properties, though it isn't a proper minivan. In addition, the Flex also replaced the similar Ford Taurus X, the station wagon variant of the Ford Taurus that was discontinued. The Flex is sold only in the United States, in Canada and in the Middle East. The Ford Flex shares a platform with the 2011–present Ford Explorer and the Lincoln MKT. The Flex, Explorer, and MKT all have a seating capacity for seven persons.

At the same time that the Flex was released, Ford also added a new yet more traditional designed SUV called the Edge to their product line.

The 2009 Ford Flex has seven-passenger seating, including adjustable and removable footrests for second-row passengers. The second and third row seats fold flat into the floor. A voice-activated communications and entertainment system, called Ford Sync, integrates the functions of cell phones, Sirius Satellite Radio, compact disc, DVD and other media players, navigation systems, and was developed in collaboration with Microsoft. The interior is lit with programmable "mood lighting" available in seven colors, along with a multi-panel Vista Roof, similar to that on the Ford Edge, for skylighting. The Navigation system has a built in hard drive for music and picture storage.

The Flex features a chrome, horizontal, three-bar grille design. The windows and pillars appear blacked out, and the roof is available as white, silver, or the same color as the rest of the body. The 2009MY SEL (optional) and Limited (standard) models offer LED tail lamps and BiXenon headlamps, and a "capless" fueling system without the traditional fuel door and cap, which provides better sealing to reduce evaporative emissions from the fuel tank. Imagine never having to remove the gas cap. Just open the door and fill the tank. I love that. The standard wheels are 17-inch diameter, with 18-inch, 19-inch and even 20-inch diameter versions available on the Limited or SEL.

The Flex features a series of horizontal grooves on its side and rear panels, intended to evoke a Woodie look without using simulated wood. Car Design News said the styling references "a previous era without resorting to obvious retro styling cues."

A backup camera, mounted just above the bumper, allows the driver to see obstructions behind the vehicle, displayed on the 8-inch navigation display screen, whenever reverse gear is engaged in addition to the common parking assistant sonar system in the back bumper. The Flex comes with Ford's AdvanceTrac traction control system with roll stability control which helps the driver maintain control on low traction surfaces and during emergency maneuvers.

The Ford Flex is powered by two different V6 engines.

The Flex's 3.5 L (213 cu in) Duratec V6 engine produces 262 hp and 248 lb·ft, and is paired with the 6-speed 6F automatic transmission. I get good, but not great gas mileage. On eastern interstates with speed limits of 65 or 70, I get 25 mpg. The trip back from Virginia this week averaged 24.8 mpg. At the full 75 mph of western highways it drops and around town hovers near 20 miles per gallon.

A direct-injected twin-turbocharged EcoBoost version is available, but the Blue Bus just breathes regular, non-turbo air. Towing capacity is 4,500 lb and a built-in hitch receiver and trailer wiring is included. Without a powerful V-8, however, I wouldn’t tow anything larger than a small U-Haul, especially on the mountain roads of Colorado. We did add a streamlined U-Haul trailer for our trip to Texas, since, with seven on board, all that remained for luggage was a small, one-foot wide space behind the third row seats. So the little U-Haul brought up the rear of the caravan with all our luggage in tow. There is a built in roof rack rails, but I didn’t go with a car top luggage carrier. They are expensive, inconvenient to load and unload, cost gas mileage, and just don’t look good to me.

Besides that trip to Texas with a full compliment of family on board, the bus has ridden the waves by ferry up the inland passage to Alaska, de-shipped in Haines and driven up to Alaska and back down the Alaska Highway through Canada to Montana and the magnificent Glacier National Park. She’s been to the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean and even to the Gulf of Mexico twice at Galveston and Panama City, Florida. She’s been to the Gulf of Alaska at Seward. She’s taken us to Las Vegas and to Alabama, to Virginia and to Oregon. She’s been to a dozen national parks and one drive-in theater. She’s driven through 31 of the 49 drivable states at last count, and there are more in my sights. The wheels on the bus go round and round.

I particularly love the cruise control. When you’re rolling under its control, if you press the “+” button once, it speeds up one mph. Similar for the “-” button. So, when I come to town and have to slow down, I punch “-” ten or twenty times and use the “+” key similarly to speed up in a nice controlled manner. You experienced pilots can compare this to using your autopilot to initiate a careful turn. Why drive when the car has 19 computers and they know what they’re doing. The cruise control also handles long downhills and will shift the bus down to keep within the speed limit and you don’t have to ride the breaks to keep under the radar. It is also responsive on steep climbs up and I curse those drivers who can’t maintain a steady speed. Beep beep, get out of my “constant velocity” way.

So that’s the Blue Bus. We now have 86,000 miles on it having purchased it in August of 2010. So that’s plenty of miles in a short time and I’ve had no complaints so far. I did have to put on a new set of tires after about 60,000 and that cost me $2 grand as these original equipment Goodyears are not bargain tires, but they do keep the road rolling underneath. I’ve had a lot of oil changes and the accompanying maintenance and tire rotations, but the only mechanical failure so far was a problem with the disk brakes in back. A bad brake actuator wore out the rotor and so I replaced it along with both rear rotors and new brake pads for around $650 in expense. Soon I’ll need new spark plugs. The originals are rated for 90,000 miles. In order to replace them, you have to remove the intake manifold that covers the entire rear half of the transverse mounted engine and the quote from Ford is almost $400.

All modern automobiles are very well designed and built and are very reliable. However, the crowded space under the hood makes for implementations that are not as maintainable as the old sixties iron that you could climb into the engine compartment to change the plugs or the points or the jets. Of course, these days, we don’t have the latter two, but still have spark plugs.

I have more voyages planned for the Blue Bus. Some with all the seats up, many with five passenger configuration, and maybe even a trip with all the seats folded down to maximize cargo space. She’s a beauty on the streets, highways, and interstates and it is always a comfortable ride up high while the world unfolds through the windshield time. That reminds me, the windshield has a few dings from outraged misfortune and the Alaska Highway, so it may be time to replace the glass and get a new view. Otherwise all she needs is some fresh oil and a full gas tank and our next adventure will unfold. She doesn’t have a dent or a ding as I drive carefully — or, as my wife refers to it — like an old man. I love the Blue Bus.

Of course, I’ve also got some other fillies that I’m eyeing for my barn. On top of the list is a Toyota FJ Cruiser. That real-off-the-road “jeep” would be just the thing to take on the unimproved gravel roads high in the Colorado Rockies as I attempt to get the four-wheel-drive stuck in really hard to get out of places.

I’m also thinking about some vintage iron such as a 60’s muscle car or even add another sports car to my stable. I’m also eyeing a new, retro-styled Triumph motorcycle and a Harley is really the two-wheeled nirvana for the Interstate. Maybe a Corvette, new or classic, I’m not particular. And, of course, that Honda Civic Si is still a sweet ride.

The only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys.

Zooooooom, Zooooooom!

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