Thursday, November 29, 2012

Test Drive: 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4X4

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

Syracuse, NY-

We all know Chrysler went through some tough times in the last few years. Plant closings, the divorce from Daimler, a lousy economy, a horribly mismanaged segment under Cerberus Capital Management, and a managed chapter 11 bankruptcy. Many people will agree that the partnership with Daimler yielded little for Chrysler in terms of good product, except for the 300C/Dodge Charger. And, to the surprise of some, the new-from-the-ground-up 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The new Grand Cherokee actually shares some components with the Mercedes-Benz ML-class, but the Jeep is built at Jefferson North Assembly—in the heart of Detroit, Michigan.

They certainly nailed the appearance on this new Jeep—it looks worthy of its “Grand” moniker. Even in base Laredo trim, it’s not covered in unpainted plastic, nor is the interior filled with dummy buttons. The exterior design looks like it could be a direct evolution from the “WJ” (1999-2004) model, and this is a good thing. The 2005-2010 model was a much less attractive design, inside and out.

Click "read more" after the jump to continue reading.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Test Drive: 2012 Ford Escape Limited 4x4

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor
They say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” ‘They’ could be talking about the outgoing Ford Escape, which  was replaced this year by an all-new model.

In 2008, Ford did a heavy refresh on the already strong-selling Escape. The exterior was restyled and the interior was redone, as well. In 2009, it received comprehensive engine, transmission, and suspension updates. Out went the 4-speed automatic, swapped for a new 6-speed Aisin unit. The 2.3-liter and 3.0-liter engines were replaced by a 2.5L inline four with 175hp, and a substantially revised 3.0L Duratec V6, with reworked plumbing good for a 40-horse jump to 240hp.

One of my favorite things about the Escape is the styling. While many SUVS have cut down on the greenhouse size considerably, the Escape kept its upright appearance, large windows, and consequently excellent sightlines. Additionally, it has not packed on the pounds like many other vehicles, weighing in near 3,550lbs, which aids in handling and fuel economy.

Click "read more" after the jump to continue reading.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Quick Spin: 2012 Volvo XC60

Photo courtesy Volvo Cars North America

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

Cape Cod, Massachusetts-Crossovers. They are all the rage. As enthusiasts, many of us prefer wagons, which seem to only come out of Germany these days, with an occasional upstart from Detroit, or Japan.

Volvo, the purveyor of popular kid-schlepping wagons for as long as we care to remember, is no exception to the trend, and they’ve brought to market the XC60 to slot in below the XC90 in their lineup. In fact, a wagon, in the strictest of terms, can no longer be found in their U.S. lineup. The XC70, or Volvo Cross Country as some versions are known, is technically a wagon, but it has a raised suspension and a more rugged look, like the Subaru Outback. Both are popular among outdoorsy types—and if you’re like a friend of mine, you buy one of each!

I spent some time driving an XC60 T6 this past week, equipped with all-wheel drive. Other than knowing that it had a turbocharged inline six engine, I hadn’t done a lot of research on them. But, the East Coast loves their Volvos, and all of their XC models were parading around the Cape. So, I was curious. 

I was quite impressed. The very first thing I noticed, which I was both surprised and pleased by, was how good outward visibility is from the driver’s seat. Too many new cars have huge blind spots and large roof pillars, which combine to make driving them vague and not especially safe, as the driver tends to guess while dicing through traffic, or driving in a parking lot. The XC60 has a lower hood than many other cars, which gives you a better view of the road ahead, and smaller A-pillars (bordering the front cockpit, by the hood).  Likewise, the view out the back surprised me. I could see so much more than in other new cars I’ve driven—the rear hatch glass is much larger than the maybe 1.5 feet of vertical window in many crossovers. Despite the sporty exterior appearance, the designers have managed to maintain an airy cockpit and safe sightlines. Well done, Volvo.

Click "read more" after the jump to continue reading.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Using Excel to Shrink the Pool of Potential Vehicles

I could use Excel as primarily an input/output tool to steer people toward groups of cars that would suit their needs extremely well.  Since there are so many cars on the market today, this would help reduce the number of models to be considered by each person into a manageable number that could be dealt with case-by-case.

Question-Answer system to supplement Excel
For example, we all know gas prices in recent years have gone up considerably. The green movement is also quite popular, especially with younger people that also tend to use social media to communicate.  In addition to Excel, I could set up a question-answer system online that allows customers to ask specific questions about the suggested cars that are generated through the Excel charts. This would give the service a more specified direction and allow personal tastes and preferences to supplement the concrete guidelines that are generated by Excel.

Unrefined diesels? Think again
A common misconception in the United States is that diesel automobiles are smelly, loud, and slow. This seems to be based on the recollection of people who had the experience of driving diesels produced in the 1980s, and diesel technology has, subjectively speaking, probably progressed as much as computer technology since then. Additionally, as many drivers are unhappy that the newest gasoline cars on the road often fall short of their Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gas mileage estimates, this has not been a problem with diesels. Diesels sell like hotcakes in Europe because they are powerful and very fuel efficient. The algorithms for the Excel suggestions and the personal advice dispensed through the Q & A section can reflect the advantages of this to the public.

Used car forum
Another way to possibly benefit customers is to introduce a used-car forum alongside the new car search feature.  A person can easily save thousands of dollars off of depreciation by buying a car that is several years old and gently used vs. buying a brand new one. I did this myself, and so far, it has proven to be a wise decision.  It may be easier to run this through a separate Excel worksheet since it introduces a number of different possibilities to the fold.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Automotive Suggestion Service-Basic Idea (subject to revision)

50 words or less:
Most people use cars to get around, so it’s an important purchase. I will come up with a service run primarily via Facebook and Twitter that makes searching for a car more intuitive and much more helpful than using a search engine.

Outside of the largest cities, most people in America depend on cars to get around. I have observed that a large portion of these drivers know very little about their cars, technically speaking, which is totally okay (but disappointing to a gearhead like myself). But, many people buy cars for what they think they need them for, as opposed to what they actually use them for. Some people buy the perfect car for themselves; many do not. If you haul a huge load of wood three times a year, but drive around solo the rest of the time, you’re probably better off buying a small sedan, coupe, or hatchback, rather than a heavy duty pickup truck. (Home Depot rents trucks at really reasonable rates!) Plus, you would gain the added benefit of not being recruited by friends and family to move their stuff all over the place every weekend (this does actually happen).

I’m thinking of using Twitter, Facebook, or both and setting up a service of sorts that allows people to input their actual needs on a car (or what they think they’ll use it for, either could work if some back and forth feedback is allowed initially) and responding to inquiries with my personal suggestions for what they should consider buying. I could perhaps gather info from a test group of people and create categories based on how the early adopters, so to speak, work through the process, to streamline it moving forward.

Yes, you can go on AutoTrader, or eBay Motors, or to a dealer’s website and do a search for “SUVs with a manual transmission (yeah right, except a couple skunkworks Ford Escapes and BMW X5s)”; “Toyota Camrys with less than 40,000 miles”; etc. but this just allows you to search for something you already have in mind. For instance, I helped a friend pick out a car that he probably wouldn’t have considered if I didn’t suggest it. I think this service could help people choose a car that just suits their needs more appropriately, overall, and in the long run that I’m willing to bet they will be happier driving.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

2007 GMC Acadia Long Term Test Update (Part 2)

June 2012
By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

Every year, we attend the NCAA lacrosse championships on Memorial Day weekend. This time, it meant a 700-mile marathon drive from Ohio to New England. The Acadia was again chosen for this trip, for the comfort and space detailed in Part One.

Fuel economy for the majority of the trip out came in around 22mpg, which is better than it has been achieving lately but still below the original EPA estimate of 24mpg despite cruising mostly around 70mph. Drivers among the 4 travelers rotated and I spent about 5 of the 11 hours behind the wheel on the drive out.

Driving impressions: I noticed that the range readout on the driver’s information cluster seems to have a mind of its own. At one point I drove at steady highway speeds for about 20 miles and it went from 424 miles to empty to 428 miles to empty…go figure. On the other hand, the average fuel economy displayed seems to be quite close to actual hand calculations.

As I wrote in my first review, this car is seriously comfortable to drive for hundreds of miles. The steering wheel sits at a nice angle and the secondary controls for the stereo and cruise control are backlit, unlike those on my Accord. The mute button is a nice touch as well. The armrests aren’t extra plush but padding is good, better than most cars. The sliding center console fits both shorter and taller drivers well. GMC could’ve used nicer dashboard and door plastics though for a car that stickers over $40,000.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Is driving in the US really all that dangerous?

By Cliff, resident storyteller and regular contributor to UpShift.

It seems not a day goes by that somewhere in the news, there isn’t some reporter talking about the crumbling condition of our roads and especially our bridges here in the US. Texting while driving is now verboten in 37 states, DC and Guam. Yes, you read that right, Guam. If I ever find myself on Guam, I think I would be a hell of a lot more concerned about one those 155 howitzer shells left over from WWII going off than texting. But I digress.

OK, We all know texting is dangerous and you shouldn’t do it while driving. And if we are really being honest about it, we all know that the driver’s test is a nothing but a bad fucking joke. Don’t agree? Put any 16 year old with a newly laminated license into a skid, and watch them shit their pants while returning to the fetal position all safe and secure in Mummy’s tummy. You were saying?

But folks, I am here to tell you that we live in a dream world of driving safety compared to Latin America where I’ve spent a fair amount of time driving and being driven. Latin American life expectancy must be shorter by a year or 2 just on general driving principles.

Being that they are our neighbor just to the south, let’s start with Mexico. The vast majority of Mexican Nationals do not have a drivers’ license. Unless, of course they live in NY, Chicago or LA. Anyway, in Mexico, if you can afford to buy the car, you’re driving. If you are from the US and plan to drive in Mexico, you are insane if you don’t buy Mexican Car Insurance. You see, in Mexico, when there is an accident and no bribes settling up who’s at fault aren’t paid on the spot, everyone goes to jail. And one guess what speed the Mexican judicial system runs? BTW- you’ll never catch a Mexican prison guard buying Viagra . . . . not to put a fine “point” on it.

Click "read more" after the jump to continue reading.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How to Fix a Ford 4.6 (Mustang/Crown Victoria/F-150) Thermostat Housing Leak... for 20 cents

Thermostat housing and water outlet on a 1998 Ford Crown Victoria police interceptor- other years similar

Last weekend, I set out to replace the thermostat in a Crown Victoria as part of a routine cooling system service. This should have taken me about five minutes, tops: I've owned more than five Crown Vics in the past few years and have done fairly extensive work on Panther-platform cars. Plus, they aren't exactly mechanically complex machines.

At first, everything went smoothly: I unbolted the water outlet from the intake manifold, replaced the thermostat and gasket, and bolted the outlet back onto the manifold at the Ford spec of 18 ft-lbs. Fired up the car, bled the system, and.... a leak! Coolant was pouring pretty steadily out from the thermostat housing on the intake manifold. Puzzled, I checked the following, which would be the usual suspects for such a leak:
  • The O-ring inside the housing was properly positioned on top of the thermostat.
  • The hose connected to the water outlet was not leaking coolant. This is something to check, because if the hose wears out, it can leak coolant and it will run down the water outlet, simulating a leak from the thermostat housing.
  • The thermostat housing was in great shape, with no pitting, cracks, or defects of any kind. I checked this thoroughly, because the Ford manifolds are well known to crack in various locations.
  • The bolts were indeed torqued down to the proper amount, and they were torqued in equal increments.
Swapping the O-ring for a different one didn't help. Nor did replacing the thermostat again, which I tried out of desperation. I even tried soaking the water outlet in brake cleaner to no avail. By this point, I was very frustrated and about to give up and just RTV the sucker to death (a cardinal sin, in my book).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gas Prices: "It's the 'S' word, stupid!"

Editor's Note: This post was written by Cliff, who has guest-written for this blog before. Cliff is a fellow automotive enthusiast and has spent time employed in the automotive industry.

I know we all have been experiencing the recent “pain at the pump”. We have been told that this sudden and unexplained rise in gas prices represents a “war premium”. Another explanation is it is as a result of Iran shutting off oil shipments to France and the UK. Another, was a rumor that a major explosion of a pipeline in Saudi Arabia had occurred which was later proven false. And the most recent and most plausible of all of these explanations in my book, the fact that Peyton Manning will no longer will be playing Quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. It’s as good as any I listed above.

Our President has stated quite clearly that there is nothing he can do about it in the short term and that it is a very long term problem. Shortly before this announcement, he shot down a major pipeline project from Canada to the heart of America’s refinery operations in the Houston, Texas region that would have had a significant impact on supply of oil in the US in the next several years. So I guess he was right. That pretty much put a lock on not solving the problem for a very long time, didn’t it?

Just yesterday, his fellow Democrats stopped an end run by a group of Republicans that would have reversed the president’s decision and given the go ahead to build the pipeline. The democrats argued that because the oil is from Canada’s tar sands it is “dirty” and not fit for US consumption. Clearly, the President and his fellow democrats must have been recovering from late night benders when they failed to show for their 7:45 AM class where what a “refinery” does was discussed. So as a result, China who now owns debt, will soon own our oil. Nice. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

2007 GMC Acadia: Long Term Test, Part I

Written by Ben Aghajanian, Contributing Editor

Part I: On the Road Impressions

We purchased our 2007 GMC Acadia Certified Pre-owned in July 2010 coming off a lease. It had been so well-kept by the previous owner that the dealer had it in the showroom alongside brand new cars. It looked new. We looked at new ones, and while very nice, they did not seem worth upwards of $43K. Our used one came in around $27K- a fully loaded, Carbon Black SLT AWD model.

Initially, we were very impressed with the car. Very smooth ride, good road/noise isolation even at high speeds, a decent-looking interior, and loads of space (which was one of the main reasons we bought it). We took it on a 3 week, 6,000 mile road trip from Ohio to Colorado, through Wyoming, and back and averaged 20.5mpg according to the onboard computer, which is quite accurate if not slightly under-optimistic: hand calculations usually yielded slightly higher results. Close to 21mpg is pretty good given the Acadia’s size, the fact that it was fully loaded with gear, was oftentimes cruising at 80+ on the wide open highways out west, and included lots of mountain driving.

Click "read more" after the jump to continue reading.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

10 US-Market Diesel Cars You Forgot About

1985 Volvo 740 Turbodiesel (VW I-6 power)

Now that gas is again approaching prices close to $4/gallon, it seems appropriate to post this list of ten diesel cars which were sold in the US that you probably have long forgotten - or never knew about in the first place. Some of these cars are incredibly cool from a novelty sense. And some... well, let's just say they're better left forgotten.

1. 1984-1987 Ford Escort Diesel - EPA Rated 41 city/53 highway

Powered by a 2-liter Mazda diesel engine, the Escort Diesel was EPA rated for 41 city and 53 highway mpg, which is pretty impressive. What wasn't so impressive was the acceleration: with 52 horsepower and 67 torques, sales were as slow as the Escort's 0-60 time. Nail in the coffin: Interference engine design meant that an owner who neglected to replace the timing belt would experience total engine failure soon after.

Fun Fact: The Tempo was also available with the same diesel engine, but sales were even worse.

Click "read more" after the jump to keep reading.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

FIAT is back in the US. A history to consider before you plunk your hard earned money on one of those cute little 500 Abarths.

1962 Fiat 500, surrounded by a 2012 Fiat 500 Pop (left) and 2012 500c Lounge (right)
Editor's Note: This post was written by Cliff, who has guest-written for this blog before. Cliff is a fellow automotive enthusiast and has spent time employed in the automotive industry. Like me, he enjoys writing in his spare time. Unlike me, he was around during Fiat's original run in the States. Enjoy!

By now, I know all of you have seen that fantastic commercial for the Fiat 500 Abarth. The one with the stunningly beautiful Italian model with the scorpion tattooed on the back of her neck. She goes from spitting venom to a seductress in seconds, leaving her victim only with a momentary memory of what might have been. I can’t tell you how absolutely perfect this commercial is for the Fiat brand, and anyone who appreciated Fiat cars from the 60’s on up to the 80’s when Fiat stopped importing into this country. The smell of the wine, the whiff of her perfume, and the sting of that damned scorpion and another memory of what might have been . . . . . gone unfulfilled. But, somehow the memory of when it all came together for those precious moments made it all worth-while. And who knows, with the 500 Abarth, maybe it finally did. God save Fiat if it hasn’t.

While I was fully of age during those years when Fiat last was here, I never owned one. They were called “the poor man’s Ferrari”, but being a college student in those days, I was even poorer. Looking at them, touching them and sitting in a few was as close as I got. Then, in 1975, my father did something to this day I still don’t believe, given he was the cheapest man on the face of the fucking planet. Dad bought a brand new Alfa Romeo, known as “the rich man’s Fiat”. It was supposed to be better: better engineered, better designed, faster, sleeker, more wow, more dare I say, Ferrari than the lowly Fiat. It is from this frame of reference that I can argue I have a pretty damned good idea of what owning a Fiat was like back then.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"It lives once again!" Volvo D24t timing belt replacement update

Almost a year ago, I wrote about a somewhat obscure project car I rescued/bought.  My 1985 Volvo 740 turbodiesel - powered by a Volkswagen-made 2.4 liter engine which Volvo called the D24t - drove fairly well when I bought it, but was way overdue for a timing belt. The belt had over 100,000 miles on it and was over fifteen years old, which is a recipe for failure. When timing belts fail in these engines, they become scrap metal: the valves will hit the pistons and the party is definitely over.

Over the next few months, I bought the parts I would need:
  • Volvo OEM timing belt which I ordered through Tasca.
  • Bosch water pump: these are preferred by enthusiasts over the more widely available GMB pumps, but can be tough to find. Oddly, I found it at (link opens to product.)
  • Gates T082 timing belt, for injection pump. I also found this at They have a lot of very hard to find parts for these cars.
  • Valve cover gasket set, again at I have since read that the updated rubber design is much preferred over this cork style, but I have not experienced leaks yet, possibly because I used a film of Hylomar sealant on the gasket.
  • Oil seals for the camshaft. These were leaking profusely on my engine. NAPA and other parts stores list the wrong parts; they will sell you the seals for a redblock/gasoline Volvo, which can be incredibly frustrating. I finally found the seals at a local import shop; you can use the seals for a Volkswagen diesel engine. The part number is 026 103 085 D - same for front and back of camshaft.

Click "read more" to continue after the jump.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Craigslist "For Sale By Owner" fails

Remember "back in the day" when you wanted to get a cheap car so you looked in the Saturday classifieds of your local newspaper? Spread across your dining room table were hundreds of cars for sale by owner, described in cryptic language like "92 Frd F-150, V6, PS, PL, A/T, VGC, nds engine, great trk" or something along those lines.

Then Craigslist happened.

Craigslist is basically the mecca of shady used car sale ads. You can find anything on that site: newer cars, older cars, cheap cars, expensive cars, wrecked cars, previously "barely wrecked cars," and everything in between. I've bought several cars off of Craigslist, and I peruse the ads on a near-daily basis just to see if there's anything out there that I can "rescue." I don't always find cars worth buying, but I always find something that's good for a laugh or three.

Click after the jump to continue reading this article.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Chrysler Super Bowl Ad: Political?

Chances are you've seen Chrysler's hit Super Bowl Commercial, "It's Halftime in America." It's a pretty cool commercial; I don't think anyone can deny that Clint Eastwood is a quintessential badass. We can ignore that maybe Chrysler forgot about Gran Torino- you know, that film in which a Ford is kind of one of the central symbols. My primary issue with their $12.8 million spot isn't the narrator, or the message it sends about our nation.

In fact, I'm writing this with some hesitation. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I wrote a little rant about Chrysler's advertising fallacies not too long ago. It was one of the most popular articles in this blog's history. So, let me be clear that this is not being written just to recreate something that was popular before, or to recirculate my old views on Chrysler's marketing tactics.

An article was just published  (for tomorrow's February 7 edition) by the New York Times- "Republicans See Politics in Chrysler Super Bowl Ad." I try to keep my political views off this website, since they aren't really relevant to the automotive world. And I won't name any of my personal political views in this article, because I do not agree with the assertion that the commercial was political. The article got me thinking for a different reason.

Click "read more" to continue with this post...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Does America Finally Have a Hot Hatch? 2013 Ford Focus ST

"That thing is really badass!" "I want one of those!" "I'd rather have that than a GTI!" "That's... awesome!"

Never before have any of these phrases been uttered in the presence of a Ford Focus, unless you were standing in a crowd of hopelessly boring people... or you were in Europe.

The Focus has always been a pretty good economy car since it was introduced as a replacement for the Escort in 1999; nothing fancy or exciting, but good in its own right. Consumer Reports recommended it, which basically means that it was a boring, mundane car that no auto enthusiast should ever drive.

Puzzingly, however, Ford chose to sell a different Focus in Europe than they sold in the United States. This was quite a shame, because the "European Focus," as it has come to be affectionately known, has received rave reviews in Europe for being a blast to drive- moreso than its European-made counterparts, in fact. More importantly, we Americans missed out on the high-performance Focus ST, which also was very well-received in the parts of the world where it was actually sold.

Click after the jump to continue reading this article.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Test Drive: 2012 BMW 650i Convertible- Necessary? Probably not. Awesome? Yes.

Words by Ben Aghajanian, photos courtesy BMW USA

Cape Cod, Mass.: No one needs a vehicle like this. I’m typically a pretty sensible and low-key purchaser. However, I could see myself purchasing this car, if money were no object.

When a car stickers for over $90,000, expectations are set quite high. However, in this day and age, where compact cars crest $25 grand, “entry luxury” sport sedans usually sticker north of $40k, and the everyman Ford Explorer can top 50k (?!), BMW’s new 650i convertible starts to make a little more sense.

For starters, the powertrain in this 193-inch long beast can be described by many words, but two seem most fitting: magnificent and symphonic. The twin-turbo, 4.4-liter V8 puts down 400 horses and over 400 lb-ft of torque practically right off of idle. Without looking at a torque curve, it seems that the vast majority of it arrives by 2500rpm. Even by 2000rpm, you’re already moving at fairly brisk clip. Equally impressive is the new 8 speed automatic, which is amazingly not a DSG, despite being the fastest shifting and most engaging auto I’ve driven. If you (or another family member) absolutely will not get a manual, this is about as good as it gets. Once you manage to engage drive, ignore the gimmicky shifter. Silver paddle shifters at 9 and 3 on the thick, three-spoke tiller operate even when the gearshift is in D, with the left side for downshifts and right side for upshifts.