Thursday, March 9, 2017

Shameless Self-promotion - AutoTrader

Best New Large Car entries lined up at AJAC's 2017 Canadian Car of the Year event, October 2016

Good News! I've recently begun supplying content to AutoTrader, and my article covering the Best New Large Car category at AJAC's 2017 Canadian Car of the Year is the first piece I've provided. You can find it here.

Although it's automotive content that I'm providing, it's not reviews at the moment. There's a lot of skilled people already doing that, and many of those folks don't have a second, full-time job that limits their schedule, and hence access to cars and opportunities to drive and photograph them. It'd be pretty difficult to compete for the limited number of new and available press vehicles with that crowd.

Also, with no disrespect to AutoTrader or anyone else, online doesn't pay as well as the Star did, so traveling to attend events is not currently practical either. What was once a slight profit or break-even venture after expenses and lost wages were factored in would now be self-sponsored. No can do.

(Oh to be a US auto journalist. My understanding based on multiple sources is that we Canadians get paid a pittance in comparison to our US kin. They often get their vehicles delivered to them, too. That's very uncommon here in Canuckia.)

While supplying material to AutoTrader is new for me, if you trace the timeline back far enough, Autotrader that was Autos was once Canadian Driver, and I did write a few pieces for them.

Anyway, I'm pleased to have been asked to write for AutoTrader. Material published there is likely to get decent exposure once people discover that AutoTrader's website is for more than just buying and selling cars. To that end, depending on your interests, you may actually have seen Sponsored Content links to some of my articles in your Facebook feed. Keep an eye out!

Shameless Self-promotion - Toronto Star's DIY Garage Wrap-up

End of an Era? Well, not quite an Era.

As with my vehicle reviews and coverage of new models and auto shows, the policy changes brought to the Toronto Star that eliminated freelance-supplied content also kicked the legs out from under my Star Touch-oriented DIY Garage series. Consequently, 2016 saw the last of those, too.

I have no idea how it was determined which articles made the transition to the Star's online "Autos" section (not to be confused with, which was already very different from the print edition of Wheels), but five did make it there in 2016 before DIY Garage was taken behind the barn and shot.

Below you'll find those last five linkable articles. Be inspired!

January 29, 2016 - Window Regulators

Inside of a 1999-2007 GM full-size pickup door. This work truck was super basic, but a fully loaded Cadillac Escalade would use the exact same door.
Note my awesome photo-editing arrows; green for glass, red for regulator...

You can read my Toronto Star DIY Garage article on replacing window regulators here.

Most of what's mentioned in this article would apply to any in-door repair work, from speakers to door check to latches or locks.

Things do get a bit funky with certain vehicles, however. In the previous generation VW Jetta and the original Saturn S-series and the ION, the outer skin of the door is removed to service internal components. Because that made sense to somebody. At least in the Volkswagen the fasteners don't break the door skin when you try to get in there. In the Saturn S-cars, the bolts seize with rust and the crappy little steel clips that they go into pull out of the flimsy plastic door panels, destroying it in the process. Fun, wow.

Another note that I didn't have space for in the Star Touch format - rather than trying to hold the glass in the closed position, it's often easiest just to remove it altogether. I prefer to stand it on edge, leaning against something in a location where it won't get knocked or fall over. Do not lay it on its side! I had a window shatter from just sitting that way on a workbench, and it did it after sitting there happily for several minutes. Tempered glass is bizarre stuff!

February 12, 2016 - 6 Important Fluids to Check

Transmission fluid on a dipstick. Sadly, transmission dipsticks are becoming a rarity. You wouldn't believe the tools and procedures required simply to check or adjust the fluid level in many modern automatics.
You can find my Toronto Star DIY Garage article on checking fluids here.

Assuming that your car still has dipsticks, checking fluid levels is pretty straightforward with just a little bit of knowledge. Just be sure that if you add fluid, that it's the correct fluid for the application. I strongly recommend against using multi-application fluids in any system. If the manufacturer has gone through the trouble of selecting a particular fluid type, it's often because it has specific properties or additives, or because it doesn't. Even expensive fluid is cheap, if you catch my drift...

February 26, 2017 - Serpentine Belts

Serpentine belt living up to its name - 2007 Mercedes-Benz E300. Somehow this same photo was captioned to read that it required 3 belts in the online article. Guess they couldn't count.
You can find my Toronto Star DIY Garage article on serpentine belts here.

The time is coming when the ubiquitous accessory belt will join distributors in the great pile of outdated auto technologies. Toyota's Prius has already done away with it, and I doubt it's the only one. These days serpentine belts are typically only used to drive alternators and air conditioning compressors, since most power steering systems have gone electric (as have air and vacuum pumps), and many vehicles drive their water pump with their cam drive (be it a belt or chain).

With the added onboard oomph of hybrids and a need for everything to remain working even with the gasoline engine shut off, a hybrid's a/c compressor is usually electrically powered, and an alternator is redundant in a vehicle with one of more large motor/generators, so a DC/DC converter handles that job. Add an auxillary electric water pump and Presto! no belt required.

That still leaves the roughly 95% of new models that aren't hybrids, and they still have belts. So they may be around for a little while yet.

March 11, 2016 - Repairing a GM Key Fob

It's not a model of a Klingon Bird of Prey - this little tab is the single biggest failure point for at least two generations of GM key fob, and it's a simple, cheap repair.

You can find my Toronto Star DIY Garage article on repairing GM key fobs here.

Want to look like a hero? Have even basic DIY and soldering skills? Know somebody who owns a GM vehicle produced between the mid-nineties and roughly 2012? Ask them if their keyless fobs work properly. If they say "not at all" or "only some of the buttons", split that sucker open (preferably over a surface where the little steel clip shown can't easily hide), and you'll probably find at least one of the contact points for the battery retainer clip has popped off of the circuit board. Blame lead-free solder, a dumb design, and the hellish life of anything attached to a key ring.

March 28, 2016 - Water Pumps

Got a wicked turbo on it...  Actually, the same centrifugal action used in turbochargers is used to move coolant. Coolant is continuously pulled from the centre and flung outwards, pumping it.

You can find my Toronto Star DIY Garage article on water pump replacement here.

Though the replacement covered is the pump in my 1987 Nissan (which uses a still-old 1993 motor), this article remains relevant for many modern vehicles, despite the fact that quite a few run the water pump with the timing belt or chain - in itself, not a new thing. Even in those models, the process is comparable, just with the added complexity of the cam drive.
This was the last of my DIY Garage series to find its way online. Maybe it was a good thing, as it was becoming difficult to find topics that were both realistic and interesting, and that wouldn't cost me a ton of money in buying parts for the sake of installing and photographing them.

So long, DIY Garage...

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Shameless Self-promotion - Toronto Star's DIY Garage

Ah, TPMS. This was actually a false warning, proof that even a $120,000 BMW isn't flawless...

You can find my Toronto Star DIY Garage article on correctly setting Tire Pressures here.

It is amazing just how many people don't understand that the correct pressure to set your tires at is not on the sidewall, but on the car. This goes for technicians, too. Most got into the trade years before TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems) became common, and the techs that they apprenticed under almost certainly were never taught this. I know I wasn't.

To be fair, standardized tire pressure labels didn't appear until the mid-2000's (when US law required them to be located in the driver's door jamb area). Before that point, if your car even had such a label, it could have been hidden damned near anywhere - glovebox, fuel filler door, front door or jamb, rear door jamb, inside the trunk lid, inside the centre console lid... you get the idea.

In reality, the same size and load index of tire might fit several dozen very different vehicles, and the sidewall only lists the maximum working pressure for that tire, which is what determines that tire's maximum load capacity. Automakers regularly use different pressures front and rear to adjust handling and wear characteristics, even using the same size tires at both ends. Setting the pressure to the sidewall max can result in a 44psi tire on a 26 psi car; it'll get awesome fuel mileage from the lower rolling resistance, but at the cost of greatly reduced grip, far harder ride quality, and substantial wear to the centre section of the tread.
(Trivia factoid: stunt drivers often crank the pressures up to make their cars slide around more easily.)

TPMS makes setting pressures accurately more important, but it's worth noting that not all TPMS systems will flag overinflation.

Find your label, get a decent quality tire gauge (I like digital myself), and check your tires occasionally. They'll last longer, you'll be safer, and you may even save a little bit of fuel in the process.

Shameless Self-promotion - Toronto Star's DIY Garage

Yes, there's a safety stand - look just above my air gun.

You can find my Toronto Star DIY Garage article on Seasonal Tire Swaps here.

Not all of my DIY Garage articles made the leap from the Star Touch tablet format that they were originally published in to the Star's online content, but this is one of those that did.

Seasonal tire changes are among the more basic DIY tasks, and don't require a huge investment in tools. That said, these are your wheels and tires, so if you aren't entirely confident in your ability to do it correctly, pay a professional and consider it money well spent. You don't get do-overs when a wheel falls off.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Shameless Self-promotion - DIY Garage (Toronto Star)

The Toronto Star introduced a new Tablet-based publication called Star Touch late last year, itself a nearly verbatim version of the layout and design of Montreal's La Presse newspaper's own very successful French-language tablet edition. Initially available only on iPads, the app was later expanded to include Android tablets as well. (It was not and still is not available for phones of any flavour. The Star has a revamped online edition for those devices and computers.)

While I won't delve into the relative merits and drawbacks of Star Touch, one of the characteristics of its layout is that it allows, arguably encourages, the use of photos and interactive content. This creates new opportunities for the type of material that can be presented. I was asked to provide a regular Do It Yourself type feature for Wheels based on my experience as a full-time working mechanic and lifelong gearhead.

The result was "DIY Garage". In my head, DIY Garage was intended to fill two primary roles; a general "how-to" on some basic car maintenance tasks, and providing the sort of information that might result from someone chatting up their car-savvy friend or neighbour.

This is how DIY Garage looked on an iPad: this is the page as it appeared when landed on. (Screencap image of TorStar content is used for editorial purposes only.)

There were, of course, limitations to just how in-depth I could get with the constraints of both the format of the features (which eventually settled on a brief introduction and generally 4-6 captioned photos) and the bounds of just what sort of stuff your average DIY'er would likely tackle in an average residential garage or driveway.

Video had been discussed, and I did in fact create two (oil changes and spare tire basics), however it was quickly determined that adding video content to Star Touch rapidly ballooned edition downloads to unrealistic sizes, so DIY Garage stayed strictly text and photos, which was fine by me. With my skillset and equipment, filming and editing videos is a ton of work and takes forever.

I did send in actual photos of my considerably less photogenic two-car residential garage after seeing this background in my first piece; strangely, those pictures were never used. This is clearly some European (guessing German...) commercial workshop space that came from the internet. Doesn't really say "DIY" to me. More like "OCD". Still, it does look nice.

Initially, the left-hand text box could be scrolled. Most later articles had a short intro instead. Scrolling the centre of the screen or selecting the right-hand buttons would open up captioned photos, which could also be individually expanded. (Screencap image of TorStar content is used for editorial purposes only.)

With the Star deciding to no longer use freelance-supplied content for Wheels as of mid-May of 2016, DIY Garage's days were numbered. A total of 15 appeared in the Star Touch editions of Wheels, while 7 seem to have made the leap to the Star's broader online edition. I'll be supplying links and commentary to each of those in some future Loose Nut updates.

I won't lie - it was becoming increasingly difficult to find topics that were realistic, interesting, and importantly, didn't require me to just buy parts for the sake of changing them. I actually did that for the spark plug story seen here, as none of my family's vehicles were due for them. Four plugs are one thing; I wasn't about to hang new brakes to accomplish the same goal. Thankfully, my employer is very supportive of my writing, so I was able to photo-document a few jobs at work that would fall into the realm of DIY-plausible. Window Regulator Replacement was one of those. Doubtless I could have found a number of additional stories there. 

It's a pity that things went the way that they did. I have provided technical content for a trade publication called CarCare Business, however those are aimed at technicians, so they're typically jargon dense and not well suited for a layman audience. There's something enjoyable about sharing knowledge and passion with people that are simply interested in it. Hopefully I'll have another chance to do something like this for a major outlet in the future.

More on DIY Garage to follow. Thanks for reading. See you soon!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Shameless Self-promotion - Toronto Star Content Update (part 4) - The Final Reviews

2016 Mazda 6 GT in Soul Red. See? Sedans don't have to be boring appliances...

May 27, 2016

You can read my Wheels review of Mazda's 6 sedan in GT trim here. (You can tell that this one sat in the Star's archives for a while. Not much snow in May.)

It's true that I have a fondness for Mazdas, but it's just as true that I'll call a spade a spade. This is no spade. It's a diamond.

Sure, there are some glaring omissions. While heated seats both front and rear are standard, a heated steering wheel isn't available. This is Canada, Mazda. I can get a heated steering wheel in a Kia Forte. Optional engine? Nope. No such luck. You can, however, get a manual gearbox in all three of the 6's trim levels, even if the top GT model's advanced safety and adaptive cruise package is automatic only. If my previous experience is any indication, the manual box would be a joy to use.

How it is that this nicely made, stylish, well-equipped, and fun to drive car gets continuously overlooked in this segment baffles me. Then again, plenty of people bought the previous generation Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger. Maybe midsize sedan buyers just prefer shoddy build quality and crappy dynamics.

2016 Polaris Slingshot. A vehicle so unusual that it deserves two photos...

...because this is where it gets really weird. Yep. It's a trike!

 June 17, 2016

You can read my Wheels review of Polaris' unusual Slingshot roadster trike here.

Many thanks to Dave Todd, owner of Spoiled Sports in Bowmanville, Ontario, for providing the test vehicle. 

Make no mistake, this thing is unconventional. Particularly now, as this vehicle configuration has not been available in Ontario, the level of attention it garners is astounding.

It is simultaneously a blast to drive and tiring - both driver and passenger have to wear a motorcycle helmet (and a full-face type helmet is a very good idea given the low height and lack of a real windshield) - and there's a lot of noise from the belt-drive transfer unit and snowmobile-style exhaust. You have to rethink the car strategy of straddling potholes and bumps, as the central rear wheel will encounter what the front wheels miss, and it doesn't always enjoy it.

While the Slingshot actually is pretty quick, and it handles better than the odd number of tires would suggest possible, this is more of a cruising and socializing vehicle than a three-day, Tail of the Dragon road-tripper. It would do it, no problem. Whether you'd want to is the question.

Just recognize it for the fun, attention-getting toy that it is and enjoy the sunshine. Through your visor.

Ernie Harmer and his 2014 Nissan Sentra, "Stingy" (background), with Nissan's 2016 Sentra SL

 July 22, 2016

Hard to believe, but after over 13 years of proudly providing content for the Toronto Star's Wheels section, this review was my last.

My take on Nissan's refreshed for 2016 Sentra can be found here.

And why is Ernie Harmer in the above photo and my story? You'll have to read it to find out...

I'm a Nissan fan, having not only owned seven of them over the years, but having had one or another as a daily driver since I was a teenager, longer ago than I care to think about. Unfortunately, as happens with every automaker, some models are better than others. Nissan has struck out with this one as far as I'm concerned; I wouldn't own this generation of Sentra, certainly not one with the available CVT, anyway.

A recent Car and Driver 5-way comparo summed up the dead-last ranked, CVT-equipped Sentra thusly: "Faster than walking, shelters you from the elements."

Nissan needs to either start using the Brazillian market Sentra's 2.0 litre engine here, or plunk in a version of the Juke's 1.6 turbo, because the current 1.8 is simply under-equipped to motivate this car with anything approaching enthusiasm. While they're at it, they ought to pull the engineers that designed and tuned the early 90's era Sentra SE-R and NX2000's "B13" chassis out of retirement and get them to do an emergency rework of this one - this Sentra has both zero verve and unimpressive ride quality. Bizarre, because the basic ingredients are good: it's roomy, it offers the latest safety tech, it's well-equipped for the money, and (in the right hands) it can return good mileage. The recipe just needs some serious tweaking.

Stay tuned! While this is the last of my Toronto Star Wheels reviews, there is more Star content for me to share. See you soon.

Shameless Self-promotion - Toronto Star Content Update (part 3)

2016 Mazda 3 Sport GS

February 12, 2016

You can find my Wheels review of Mazda's compact 3 Sport hatchback in GS trim here.

Production of some Mazda 3 models switched to the company's brand new facility in Salamanca, Mexico recently. Would there be a noticeable difference in build quality relative to the Japanese-sourced models available previously?

As it turns out, at least in the short term, no.

The 2.0/manual Sport might be the best all-around configuration of this vehicle, though I'd be hard-pressed to argue against having the extra oomph of the GT's 2.5 litre engine. Truly one of the most engaging mainstream compacts available. 

The 2017 Honda Ridgeline's Canadian introduction at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto by Honda Canada’s Jean-Marc Leclerc

February 16, 2016

Auto Show time again!

You can find my Toronto Star coverage of what Honda Canada unveiled at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto here.

With Honda having just been awarded AJAC's Canadian Car of the Year that morning, Jean-Marc's presentation began with well-deserved kudos to Honda's staff for the winning product. The other big news item was the new Ridgeline, seen above. It will be interesting to see how the combination of the obvious relationship to the Pilot crossover (shared forward sheetmetal and headlights) and far more conventional-looking box (no more odd sail panels between the box wall and rear of the cab) will be received by mid-size truck buyers. Truthfully, the Ridgeline is all the truck many folks shopping the segment need, and it's bound to be better at a lot of the everyday things that people actually use these things for. Let's hope it's better received than the previous one.

Subaru Impreza 4 door Concept - precursor of the 2017 Impreza sedan, presented by Subaru Canada's Ted Lalka

February 17, 2016

You can read my Toronto Star coverage of Subaru Canada's presentation at the 2016 Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto here. They really should have used my pictures.

As you can imagine, the 2017 Impreza was a large part of the news, with the model's Concept being introduced. The switch from Japanese production to this new generation car being manufactured in the US at Subaru's SIA facility in Lafayette, Indiana was also significant.